January 2020

Water management

Water and sustainability
Mark Patton / Hydrozonix

Environmental Sustainability and Governance (ESG)—get used to this term. It will be much more important to the oil and gas industry for the years to come. For some of you, this may not be anything new, but ESG is not just another buzzword we need to get used to.

ESG needs to become a key component in our decision-making process. In the next few years, this topic will become part of quarterly reporting, or at least it should be. You see, the oil-and-gas industry has always been accused of not being environmentally friendly, and that sentiment has taken center-stage with lawsuits against the majors over climate change. We don’t expect this to change.

As an industry, it’s time we stand up and challenge the idea of not being environmentally friendly. Specifically, the Oilfield Water Management sector has a great environmental sustainability story to tell. So, let’s talk about how we do that.

Pipelines versus trucks. I think we all realize the growth of the Water Midstream, but what we may not be considering is the transition from truck to pipeline and what that means for environmental sustainability. We tend to focus on cost-savings because, ultimately, we are judged on profitability and return on investment (ROI). But as I mentioned earlier, we need to keep ESG under consideration, and this is where we are missing a great opportunity.

Let’s take a small pipeline like Four Bears in the Bakken. It was projected to eliminate 50,000 truck miles per day. When you look at a larger pipeline like the Keystone XL, it is projected to eliminate 4,150 truckloads per day. Assuming a lower estimate of 100 miles per trip, we are talking 415,000 truck miles per day. Now, you start calculating what that means in carbon footprint reduction, and we are talking significant numbers. These miles also represent wear-and-tear on our highways, accelerating their repair. These repairs are not just costs, but more energy and emissions from the repair activities. The impact of reducing truck traffic is more significant than just the emissions from the truck.

These are the numbers that we need to start reporting and tracking—the total impact in reduced carbon footprint. We are seeing significant growth in the Water Midstream and with that, gathering systems are becoming larger, resulting in a reduction of truck hours and truck emissions. A recent study in Canada showed up to a 77% reduction in emissions when transitioning to pipelines from railcars. Additionally, there is a significant reduction in emissions from trucks to railcars. This means a monumental decrease in emissions with the transition from trucks to pipelines, yet we never mention this in terms of emission reduction or reduction in carbon footprint.

We will talk about improved safety and lower costs, which are significant and justify the investment in water infrastructure, but this, alone, doesn’t tell the whole story. As I mentioned earlier, the Oilfield Water Management industry has a great story to tell, when it comes to environmental sustainability, and it’s time that we tell our story.

The alternative energy double standard. It seems to me that, at times, we are reluctant to tell our story, because it makes us vulnerable to attack by the supporters of alternative energy or the anti-oil groups. Yet, the reality is that we are always under attack, and alternative energy isn’t perfect. 

One of the most common attacks against pipelines, for example, is the impact on the environment, specifically impacts to wildlife. Well, let’s talk real impacts to wildlife—there are reports of hundreds of desert tortoises killed, and 6,000 birds set on fire, from one solar farm in California. In Pennsylvania and West Virginia, 2,000 bats were killed in six weeks by a wind farm of 64 wind turbines. In some countries endangered species regulations have been exempted, when considering alternative energy projects.

The next time that someone talks to me about the possible impacts to wildlife from a pipeline, I will ask, “What about the wildlife being killed every day by ongoing alternative energy projects? Why is the real death ignored over the concern about a potential impact?” More importantly, we have real data on pipelines and their performance and impacts on wildlife—alternative energy performance in this area is poor in comparison. But before we can have this type of dialogue, we, as an industry, must begin tracking and reporting our real performance, not just financially, but reduced emissions, reduced carbon footprint and environmental sustainability.

Produced water recycling. Another trend we have discussed is the increase in recycling of produced water. We are eliminating the use of fresh water for every barrel that we recycle. As an industry, we have mostly eliminated fresh water in favor of brackish, but even this practice is questionable. Brackish water is the next best available source of water for communities facing drought. We can, as an industry, sustain ourselves on the same produced water we generate by overcoming logistical issues and following in the footsteps of New Mexico, allowing freshwater contracts to be voided. We produced over double the produced water that we need to complete wells in the Permian, our largest play. We should eliminate using not just fresh water, but also brackish. This makes our industry more environmentally sustainable.

The future. There are areas like the Eagle Ford and Powder River basin, where we can, today, economically get discharge-quality water from produced water, due to the lower salinity, but policies like the 98th Meridian and prohibitions of produced water discharges stop us. We need to remove these impediments, because if we can become a net producer of water, this changes the environmental sustainability argument altogether. I tell you today—that is our future, and we will have an even better story to tell.

About the Authors
Mark Patton
Mark Patton is president of Hydrozonix and has more than 30 years of experience developing water and waste treatment systems for the oil and gas industry. This includes design, permitting and operation of commercial and private treatment systems, both nationally and internationally. He has seven produced water patents and two patents pending. He earned his B.S. in chemical engineering from the University of Southern California (USC) in 1985.
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