A byproduct produced during oil and gas drilling could be treated and reused in other industries if the State of New Mexico achieves its goal of developing new technologies to repurpose the water.
The State of New Mexico created its Produced Water Research Consortium 2019 to study expanded applications of the water and its ability to address water scarcity through a partnership with New Mexico State University.
The project was started in response to the 2019 passage of the Produced Water Act, as the New Mexico Environment Department was tasked by the law to regulate produced water’s use outside of oil and gas and sought to understand its content, generation and potential for reuse.
During a Tuesday meeting with the consortium at New Mexico State University Carlsbad, director Michael Hightower provided a public update on the group’s research so far into the impact of produced water and progress in devising new applications.
The meeting saw participants breaking into groups to learn about studies into the toxicity of produced water, potential methods of treatment and the possible economic benefits of its reuse.
Hightower said the research was especially important as oil and gas operations grew in New Mexico, recently producing up to 1 million barrels of oil and 4 million barrels of produced water daily – three times the water availability of Albuquerque.
Records show New Mexico operators generated about 160 million gallons per day of produced water last year, a source so far underutilized in the arid state, Hightower said, when it is disposed of.
“That’s a lot of water. When it’s reinjected it’s no longer available for reuse,” Hightower said. “There’s potentially a lot of water that could be used. That’s a lot of economic development for the state of New Mexico. That’s an opportunity for us.”
A ‘significant’ opportunity
Produced water is a combination of flow back from hydraulic fracturing – when water, sand and chemicals are pumped underground to break up shale rock formations so fossil fuels can be extracted – and formation water brought up from deep underground along with crude oil and natural gas.
Wells can generate up to 10 barrels of produced water, about 42 gallons, for every barrel of oil extracted.
Traditionally, the water high in brine and toxic to humans is disposed of via injection wells when it is pumped underground.
In recent years, energy companies throughout the U.S. and recently in the Permian Basin in southeast New Mexico and West Texas began finding ways this water could be treated and reused in subsequent fracking operations.
New Mexico hoped to go a step further, removing enough chemicals and contaminants to allow the water to be reused in industries like agriculture or for municipal purposes like watering city parks.
“Some of these waters are harder to treat. Some are easier to treat,” Hightower said. “What we’re trying to do is marry the water quality with the potential use. Not all waters are the same. We’re looking at the potential for reuse outside of oil and gas. These applications are tougher because they have more impact on the environment and the public.”
Rose Galbraith, epidemiologist with the New Mexico Department of Health said safe reuse of produced water could generate up to $1 billion in economic impact.
“If this water can be reused safely, it poses a significant economic opportunity,” she said.
Stephen Hightower, a physician who worked with the consortium said the toxicity of produced water was being evaluated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which partnered with the consortium, exposing the water to zebra fish, human cells and plants in greenhouses to study the impact on living organisms.
“These processes are part of our development of a safe water that can be reused for multiple uses,” he said. “With this type of testing we believe we can find an appropriate fit-for-purpose use of treated produced water.”
He said in the Permian Basin, where produced water has a high level of salinity, treatment could require a thermal desalination process which Stephen Hightower said but might prove costly.
Other options such as reverse osmosis and other kinds of filters were being explored, he said.
“We need different technologies,” he said. “It comes down to if it is cost-effective.”
‘Some really good data’
Vince Tidwell with Sandia National Laboratories said the level of total dissolved solids (TDS) was a defining feature of how it was treated and how it could be used.
He said the consortium used socio-economic modeling to attempt finding the best methods of treatment and form of reuse for various areas throughout New Mexico where the water is produced.
Treating produced water to a quality for drinking water, Tidwell said, could return only about 30 percent of the water under one scenario, while treating to a brine water – high in salt – could return as much as 90 percent.
“That’s really what drives what we do,” he said of TDS levels. “That’s really one of the most important factors. The level of treatment that we go do often dictates how much water we’re going to get out because there’s so much salt.”
But if achieved, Tidwell said the economic benefits could be immense, creating jobs and adding up to millions of dollars, depending on the method of reuse, to the local economy.
“There’s all these kinds of trickle down impacts,” he said. “We need to put this growth in the regional economy versus the cost and get the net benefit.”
Debra Dixon, consortium fellow and former director of New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission said the Permian Basin water’s high levels of TDS would continue to create a challenge for treatment.
In the San Juan Basin, produced water can be at about 10,000 parts per million (ppm) of TDS, while the Permian can register as high as 300,000 ppm of TDS.
“This is changing the paradigm of cost effectiveness,” she said of the Permian’s high TDS readings.
That’s why in nine projects proposed and approved for support and potential funding by the consortium, she said, both the Permian and San Juan Basin were represented, along with three major technological methods including thermal applications and various filtration systems.
Pilot projects ranged from treating 10 to 10,000 barrels per day, Dixon said, and all were ongoing or delayed.
But when complete, Dixon said the studies could provide the information needed to capture produced water as a source for all New Mexicans.
“We got a lot of good representation of technologies,” she said. “Assuming all of these get completed, we’ll have some really good data. The results are not in yet, but there’s lots of potential.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.