Recycling drilling wastewater benefits both the environment and the bottom line

In the U.S., more than 1 million oil and gas wells have been hydraulically fractured, with an estimated 35,000 new wells fractured each year. Paired with traditional extraction methods, this growing technique has played a pivotal role in reducing our dependency on foreign energy and has generated a positive impact on our national economy. However, due to its reliance on extensive water resources, the industry and consumers are concerned about the growing need for proper water management.

For every barrel of oil produced, on average eight barrels of water are also produced (according to the U.S. DOE). Moreover, U.S. wells generate between 70 million and 140 million gallons of frack flowback and produced water every day (according to the U.S. EPA). Needless to say, managing this water supply is a massive cost burden for oil and gas operators. Oilfield managers spend between 75 cents and $9.75 per barrel to source and truck freshwater for operations. Operators must also spend anywhere from $1 to $17 per barrel to truck and dispose of contaminated water in evaporation and disposal ponds. According to Jefferies, the total water management process, from sourcing freshwater to trucking away wastewater for disposal, can cost from an average of $9 up to a high of $26 per barrel of water.

With oil prices reaching record lows, water management costs are now an increasing percentage of the overall cost of hydraulic fracturing and traditional oil operations. In order to increase margins and effectively cut operational costs, a growing number of operators are looking to adopt technology to help treat and reuse wastewater on site, rather than trucking it away for disposal. 

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Various wastewater-recycling technologies are being introduced to the market, including processes like media filters, electro-coagulation, chemical treatment, membranes filtration, ion exchange resins and desalination. When choosing a solution, the biggest challenge operators face is finding an economic and robust total solution that can treat wastewater to meet their final water-quality requirements. Oil and gas operators have found that many systems under-treat the wastewater, which requires excessive maintenance in the long term due to inflicted damage on well equipment and clogging of membranes and filters.

Water technology company OriginClear (formerly known as OriginOil) has developed a new method for treatment of frac flowback and produced water, called Electro Water Separation (EWS), designed to be customizable, low energy and low maintenance. In a two-step process, EWS circulates wastewater through reactor tubes and applies electric pulses to clump the oil and suspended solids. Next, the oil and solids are lifted to the surface by a cloud of microbubbles generated by a second surge of pulses in the flotation chamber. The process has been proven to remove 99.9 percent of turbidity and suspended solids in wastewater from Colorado gas wells to west Texas oil wells to Monterrey shale heavy oil reserves. Unlike other technologies, EWS can be used as an end-to-end solution by integrating it with downstream processes, depending on the customer’s desired end use.

Innovative water management technologies are predicted to take hold in the oil and gas industry in the coming decade. According to a report from Bluefield Research, technology will be a primary force behind greater water reuse in operations over the next five years. In fact, wastewater treatment spending for hydraulic fracturing is expected to grow threefold, from $138 million in 2014 to $357 million in 2020.

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As long as water continues to be an essential part of the drilling process, the industry will be responsible for managing the resource. If operators can recycle their water supply, both their bottom line and the environment can benefit.

About the Author
Bill Charneski is president of the Oil & Gas Division of OriginClear Inc. He is responsible for commercializing the company’s Electro Water Separation technology in the oil and gas industry, spanning product development, sales and licensing, manufacturing control and integration with other industry systems.

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