For the past four years, I have represented the Rocky Mountain region states on the Board of the Ground Water Protection Council (GWPC). It is an organization composed of the oil and gas directors and environmental water quality directors of multiple U.S. states. In April 2017, the GWPC Board approved Resolution 17-1, “Creating a National Study Group to Focus on Regulatory, Scientific and Technological Challenges concerning the Beneficial Use of Produced Water from Oil and Gas Production.” Since that time, I have served as the Co-Chairman of that study group along with Ms. Shellie Chard, Director of the Oklahoma Water Quality Division. Following our two years of effort and over 400 pages of text contributed by a qualified team of scientists, petroleum industry and water quality professionals, and legal experts, the GWPC Board recently approved the results of the study for publication. I expect final editing and printing of the report to be accomplished in mid- to late-June.
As complex as the petroleum industry can be, the subset of knowledge pertaining to produced water from oilfields requires an even deeper level of understanding. Produced water has historically been handled as a waste by-product of oil and gas production. It often contains high concentrations of dissolved salt and traces of other materials. The traditional method of disposing of produced water has been to re-inject the fluid into deep wells far removed from shallower fresh water intervals or back into petroleum producing zones for secondary recovery of crude oil. But the basis of the GWPC Board resolution in 2017 was to ask, “what else can be done with produced water?” Even if produced water cannot be consumed or provide benefit to agriculture (and in some specific scenarios, agriculture use is viable), if it could displace current secondary uses of fresh water, then there may be potential win-win applications for the petroleum industry and the general public. And the current volumes of produced water being processed by the petroleum industry are not insignificant.
The conclusions of the report are summarized by the closing paragraphs of the soon-to-be-published Executive Summary:
“Operators and regulators alike are rethinking the economics and long-term sustainability of traditional produced water management practices. Many operators are reusing more produced water than ever. As water becomes scarcer, the increasing benefits of reusing produced water in some regions may outweigh the costs of managing, treating, storing, and transporting it if health and environmental risks can be understood and appropriately managed. While most near-term alternatives focus on reuse of produced water to reduce fresh water consumption in unconventional oil and gas operations, interest is growing in the potential for reuse outside the oil and gas industry.
Produced water is not uniform, and neither are the circumstances of its potential treatment and reuse. Research, treatment decisions, risk management strategies, and in some cases even approval processes should be tailored to address the reuse of a particular produced water for a particular type of reuse. Identifying specific reuse options that address current or emerging needs or drivers in specific regions is an important next-step opportunity in order to prioritize investment in purposeful and actionable research and development with a defined set of facts and circumstances. Additional regulations to protect public health and the environment may apply or be developed in response to increased beneficial reuse outside the oil and gas industry.”
I am proud to be associated with the creation of the coming report. I expect that it will establish a foundation for future consideration of legal framework modification, academic and research efforts, and any additional updates to the comprehensive study of produced water represented by the current report.