The federal government is the 800-pound gorilla of land usage. With mineral rights of over 700 million acres, the United States Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is the largest landowner in the country, so when it speaks, anyone with a vested interest in land use is wise to listen carefully.
The BLM has recently spoken with a revised proposal to regulate how hydraulic fracturing is to be performed on federal and Indian-owned land. Put into perspective, land under the jurisdiction of this proposal represents 13 percent of current domestic natural gas production. With stakes so large, it should surprise nobody that the energy industry thinks new regulations are unnecessary while environmentalists say they don’t go far enough.
A recent survey conducted by Ecologix Environmental Systems asked oil and gas professionals what aspect of fracking they believed was most in need of regulation. A staggering 85 percent of respondents indicated that issues dealing with water are the most important. That’s because almost every problematic environmental issue related to the industry comes down to water.
Two of the main issues environmentalists have with the BLM’s proposal are that it (1) allows the storage of frack water in lined open-air pits, and (2) it does not require full disclosure of the “trade secret” chemicals used in the process. Both concerns basically boil down to how water is managed through the entire life-cycle of a well.
The bad news for drillers is that the proposed regulations are unlikely to be as non-disruptive as the industry would like. But the good news is that implementing a proper water management plan, as called for by the proposal, can ease the concerns of environmentalists and actually increase the productivity of newly fracked wells.
While the BLM rules do not specify guidelines for any particular water management plan, they do require that frackers have some type of legitimate plan in place. The best water management plans address how to handle fluids during each stage of drilling, fracking and well completion.
Water exists in various forms during oil and gas production. Fresh water is often used to create the frack fluid that is pumped into wells under high pressure. Fluid that immediately returns to the surface is called flowback. Following that, brine water that naturally exists in the formation—called bound water, makes its way into the well and flows back to the surface. This is known as produced water.
Environmentalists are most angered over two common practices in the industry. First, fresh water used to begin the frack is purchased from local sources, which commonly withdraw their product from aquifers. Withdrawing large amounts of fresh water is particularly troublesome when you consider that many fracking wells are located in arid climates that commonly experience prolonged drought conditions. This water is blended with a mixture of proppant, a sand-like material that helps hold open induced fissures in the formation, and chemicals that help carry the proppant into the cracks. Since the water is highly concentrated with drilling mud, hydrocarbons and other materials when it flows back, it is generally regarded as a waste byproduct and discarded into disposal wells—the second step that concerns environmentalists. By now, we’ve all heard the reports tying wastewater disposal to earthquakes. Additionally, briny produced water seeps up from the well as long as it operates. It also carries the same materials seen in flowback water, albeit in different concentrations, and because of this it is also discarded into injection wells.
Water treatment and recycling is a viable solution to adequately address the water concerns of the industry. The right water treatment technologies open the way for a larger pool of water sources to be used in mixing frack fluids. Flowback and produced water can be treated for reuse in future fracking operations. In fact, well owners will see increased well productivity by using treated produced water as the main ingredient in frack fluid because the salinity in the water acts as a clay stabilizer, preventing an osmotic imbalance that results in formation swelling and inhibits the flow of oil and gas resources. In many cases, changing the chemical makeup of the frack fluid to accommodate the use of high-salinity produced water is less expensive than purchasing and hauling fresh water from an aquifer.
Even though the proposed regulations by BLM do not enumerate all the specifics of a water management plan, it makes sense for drillers to re-double their efforts as the issue attracts more and more attention from federal regulatory boards. Accurate accounting of how much water is withdrawn from local sources is included in the proposal, which is likely in advance of rules to determine withdrawal limits.
Where fracking is almost exclusively regulated by individual states, the new federal regulations about to be implemented will cover a significant percentage of federal land used for oil and gas drilling and act as a baseline template for states still developing their own regulations. One thing is certain—more regulation is on the way. Instituting best practices and being proactive on water resource management makes more sense than scrambling to react to future regulations after they are passed.