Oil and Gas Industry Tackles Responsible Water Usage

September 24, 2014

Glossy lake with a cloudy sky

The environmental impact of the energy industry is diverse, and in recent years, there has been a trend towards increased commercialization of various renewable energy sources.

For oil and gas producers, this trend has been accompanied by great strides to ensure they make as little impact as possible on the natural environments in which they operate, including:

  • Drilling multiple wells from a single location to minimize damages to the surface
  • Using environmentally sound chemicals to stimulate well production
  • Restoring the surface as close as possible to pre-drilling conditions

The industry takes safety and environmental stewardship very seriously and the vast majority follows the rules and regulations set out by provincial regulatory requirements.

Responsible Water Usage

One of the major environmental impacts the oil and gas industry is said to have is on water. While industry has long been conscious of water treatment, both above and below ground, there are some significant challenges facing them regarding sourcing and using water. Of the entire world’s water supply, only one per cent is actually potable, creating a competition between humans, agriculture and the energy industry for this limited fresh water resource.

Water usage and disposal is typically seen as the general public’s biggest concern, so the oil and gas industry is always looking for ways to use its existing sources of water more efficiently and search for other sources of water not used for human and agricultural consumption. To use water more efficiently, the industry focuses on reusing, processing and recycling it multiple times so that they are keeping as limited an inventory of water as possible. This means less water would be taken from an independent source and a reduced need for water disposal.

What Happens to Water that Can’t be Reused or Recycled?

Another challenge that industry continues to face is disposing water that can’t be reused or recycled. When water’s salt concentration is too high, it becomes unusable chemically and industrially. In the oil and gas industry, water use can increase water salt content to extreme levels. For example, sea water has a typical concentration of around four per cent; in comparison, some water used by the oil and gas industry will end up with a concentration level of 10, 20 or 30 times that.

Two major options for unusable water

1. Using energy and processes to remove the salt and contaminants to produce recyclable water

There is a huge technology push in Saskatchewan and internationally to take contaminated water and turn it into water that can be recycled. Recycled water is not necessarily potable, but can have other uses. The challenge is that new technology requires considerable investment and on top of that, all technology also requires using more energy.

2. Reinjecting unusable water into the oil or water disposal wells

This option is the most controversial from a social license to operate. At present, this remains the industry standard practice for disposing contaminated water. More than 95 per cent of unusable water is disposed of in this way. It is seen as the safest and least expensive way of disposing of water, if done properly.

There are strict regulations in place for these disposal processes and while it is safer than it used to be, public trust has wavered. The concern is that the contaminated water may come up through the ground and into the reservoir of a community’s drinking water. Unfortunately, in the past, some wells have been poorly configured, resulting in the extraction of contaminated water. However, that contamination occurred not because the industry’s water disposal concept was wrong, but because the execution was poorly done.

Preserving Water

Because of these challenges, an emphasis needs to be put on showing and delivering high integrity ways of water disposal. First, we need to determine how to preserve our current water sources; and if water must be used, how do we ensure that our inventory of industrial water gets recycled in a closed loop with as little disposal as possible?

At SRC, we are working alongside industry on preserving water and developing technologies that will allow oil and gas companies to reuse and recycle this water. We’re in a unique position because we can both evaluate the technologies and understand the bigger picture, which allows us to create practical, economically viable and tangible solutions for industry while demonstrating improvement to social license.

We're always interested in discussing this topic more, so feel free to contact us about water or our other technologies and capabilities.