Four years into a drought that has plagued much of western Oklahoma, the oil and natural gas industry continues to expand its search for energy locked deep below the dusty surface.
Despite the increased oil and gas activity in the state, oil and gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, still account for less than 2 percent of freshwater use in Oklahoma, according to the Oklahoma Water Resources Board and the Oklahoma Geological Survey.
Public water supply represents 41 percent of the state’s freshwater use, followed by irrigation at 32 percent and livestock and aquaculture at 12 percent.
“Even with the growth in fracking and unconventional drilling in the state, we still expect to see oil and gas in the grand scheme of things to be a very small piece of the overall water consumption pie in Oklahoma,” said J.D. Strong, executive director of the Oklahoma Water Resources Board.
In the state’s 2060 water plan, oil and natural gas water use is expected to grow to about 4.8 percent over the next five decades.
Industry representatives, however, say the projections could be too high.
“As we grow in efficiency, I don’t know if we will have a significant increase over time,” said Brian Woodard, vice president of regulatory affairs at the Oklahoma Independent Petroleum Association.
Most oil and natural gas companies operate under 90-day provisional temporary groundwater or surface-water permits, which allow them the water they need for an operating area before moving on to the next drilling location.
The permits are relatively easy to receive — often in the same day. They also can be revoked easily.
“There have been a few instances where there is just not water available in a particular area where an oil and gas company has applied to take water, but we can usually help them find alternatives,” Strong said.
In other cases, a landowner downstream has complained that an oil and gas operator upstream has used up all the water intended for irrigation.
“A couple of times, we have called the operator and told them to stop pumping water until the farmer downstream with a senior right can irrigate,” Strong said. “We’ve never had a problem with them not complying.”
While the industry uses a relatively small amount of water, one key difference is where the water goes when it is used.
With most industries, water remains in the ecosystem. When a farmer sprays water across a field in Beaver County, the water eventually evaporates, becomes a cloud and rains back down, though not necessarily in Oklahoma.
With oil and natural gas operations, however, used water usually is pumped deep underground where it is removed from the ecosystem forever.
“There’s no question we do not use a lot of water relative to total use, but it’s not about how much we use, it’s about how much we lose,” Walter Dale, global business development manager for water solutions at Halliburton Co., said at the Shale Play Water Management Conference in Dallas.
“People try to compare us to agriculture, but we’ll never win that debate.”
Others, however, say the picture is less clear. Some point to produced water that is held in open-air storage tanks.
“I’m not sure if anybody has studied that on a water-loss basis,” Strong said. “To my knowledge, nobody has looked at whether there is a net loss.”
Others claim that the industry actually could replace more water than it uses. Natural gas is mostly methane, and when methane is burned, the byproducts are carbon dioxide and water vapor.
Roughly 11 million gallons of water is added to the atmosphere from burning 1 billion cubic feet of natural gas. At that rate, an average Oklahoma well will provide in its first six months of operation enough water vapor to replace the 4 million gallons used to drill and frack the well.
Try to set an example
While the oil and natural gas industry uses a relatively small amount of the state’s water, state Energy and Environment Secretary Michael Teague is encouraging the industry to set the example in water conservation, reuse and recycling.
“They are the most innovative and nimble industry in the state,” Teague said. “They are by nature an innovative industry. Look at what they have been able to do with horizontal drilling for shale gas and oil.”
Various companies are experimenting with different potential solutions for reducing or eliminating water. So far, the answers have tended to be specific to individual regions and rock formations. Industry leaders, however, say they are confident that companies will be able to apply lessons learned from one area to another.
“If someone is doing something successful with drilling technology, it spreads quickly,” said Chad Warmington, president of the Oklahoma Oil and Gas Association. “Look no further than what’s going on with horizontal drilling.”
There’s no question we do not use a lot of water relative to total use, but it’s not about how much we use, it’s about how much we lose. People try to compare us to agriculture, but we’ll never win that debate.”
global business development manager for water solutions at Halliburton Co.