June 2022

Water Management: It’s an origin story problem

The next phase of oilfield water management will be desalination and discharge for uses outside of the oil field.
Mark Patton / Hydrozonix

I was once an irresponsible young man. In fact, for most of us, there is an origin story that is a complete contrast of who we are today. And the expectation is that we should be judged as the person we have become, not who we were or our origin story. So, what does this have to do with oilfield water management? Well, surprisingly, a lot. 

The next phase of oilfield water management will be desalination and discharge for uses outside of the oil field. These discharges can include a variety of applications with agricultural and industrial cooling or makeup water leading the way. Unfortunately, the focus is on what is in the produced water today and not what it can become. Can produced water be cleaned to drinking water standards? Yes, it can. But there are many lower-cost applications along the way that can reduce freshwater consumption that should be considered first. The question is which of these applications or end-uses should we consider first? And while we ponder this question, we are focused on produced water’s origin story. 

When someone is interviewed for a job, for example, it is not unusual to do a background check and, because of his/her history, may be deemed a poor candidate. This thinking has entered the produced water world—because of all the contaminants in produced water, we should never use it. A variation of this is “we cannot use produced water, because we don’t know everything that is in it.” 

Every discharge in the world has contaminants that we are unaware of or have not developed test methods for. As a result, we develop general toxicity tests to determine the risk associated with discharging or using this water. We continuously identify new contaminants or “emerging contaminants of concern.” PFAS and trace pharmaceuticals, for example, are new or emerging contaminants—we have identified these, and they are under evaluation, but we continue the discharges all around the world. In the case of produced water, the objection is “don’t even allow a discharge, because it’s produced water, and who knows what’s in it.” The truth is we know as much, if not more, about produced water than we know of any other discharge. But its origin story haunts produced water. 

In the early days of recycling municipal wastewater, the term was created “from toilet to tap.” This sunk the idea of recycling and reusing municipal wastewater, because it allowed people to focus on its origin as raw sewage from our toilet. Forget that plant mangers were showing clear glasses of treated water and drinking it. Forget that we knew more about this water and tested it more frequently than our groundwater. Toilet to tap was doomed. We shifted and started to use this water for irrigation of non-food crops or continued discharging it into the ocean, where we catch fish and eat them. Out of sight and out of mind. 

This delayed the reuse of municipal wastewater as drinking water for many years. Many years later, a transitional step was groundwater recharge. Let’s discharge this treated water that is safe for human consumption into a reservoir and allow this water to percolate through the earth and replenish our groundwater. In fact, groundwater recharge for municipal wastewater is currently being used all around the world. Today, we have programs taking municipal wastewater directly into drinking water. If you have ever been to Disneyland in California, it’s likely you’ve sampled some of this water. 

With people, we worry that our “origin story” is an indication of a possible behavior we should worry about—he was an addict, he used to have a drinking problem, he has a violent temper. Water is different. You remove a contaminant, and it stays removed. The “origin story” should not be what our focus is, but what it can become. This begs the question, “what will it become?” 

We focus on produced water as it is today—untreated—but we need to define its potential applications like agriculture, for example, and decide the water quality requirement needed for that application. Let’s say we wanted to design a vehicle, and our task is plainly to design a vehicle. Without saying how it will be used, off-road, highway, how many passengers, electric or combustion engine, we would have a multitude of design options. Now, lets say we go to a group of entrepreneurs or the auto industry and ask the same question. They will answer, “define the applications, what is the vehicle used for, what is my market size,” and the answers to these questions will drive their interest and commitment to the effort. Besides the “origin story” problem, this is the other factor stopping reuse of produced water outside of the oil field—the lack of well-established goals. 

We, today, have not seen major water treatment companies look at desalinating or partially desalinating produced water, because we have now specific treatment goals established. If we develop a specific treatment goal for a discharge, then industry can design to that goal. With no goal, what do you design to? This is why produced water reuse has not made any progress and will not, until we move past the “origin story” and work toward defining specific applications with specific treatment goals. 

I see a future where the oil and gas industry not just provides energy, but a source of new water that is vital and critical to so many drought-stricken areas. This makes the industry much more sustainable and should be our path forward. Let’s get away from the “origin story” and focus on what produced water can become—drinking water. Let’s not make the same mistake that “toilet to tap” did. Yes, they ultimately arrived at a drinking water option, but many years behind schedule. There may be a lesson in this for all of us—focus on what we can become, not where we came from.

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.
Related Articles
Connect with World Oil
Connect with World Oil, the upstream industry's most trusted source of forecast data, industry trends, and insights into operational and technological advances.