Fossil Fuels

Published on May 1st, 2017 | by Tina Casey

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Water Butts Heads With Fracking, Oil & Gas Industry In Oklahoma … Or Not

May 1st, 2017 by  

The fracking boom has combined with conventional oil and gas drilling to raise a sea of troubles against the doorstep of Oklahoma. Water scarcity is one of those troubles. In a new report aimed at avoiding chronic water shortages, a state task force is recommending that drillers recycle their wastewater instead of injecting it underground.

A recycling requirement would cut into drilling profits, particularly so for fracking (aka hydrofracturing). Fracking deploys large volumes of water compared to conventional drilling and consequently produces large volumes of wastewater.

So far, how is the industry responding to the new report?

The Oklahoma Fracking Problem

Many (many) risks and hazards are associated with the fracking boom, and earthquakes are one of them.

Though the direct linkage of earthquakes to oil and gas drilling operation is rare, a growing body of evidence has linked earthquakes to the practice of injecting wastewater from those operations into unused wells.

That wastewater can come from conventional drilling as well as fracking, so to be clear, induced seismicity from wastewater injection is not specific to fracking. It’s a general wastewater disposal problem for the oil and gas industry, whether the drilling operation involves fracking or not.

Oklahoma has become a case study in induced seismicity from wastewater disposal. Once a quiet zone, the state has become one of the most seismically active areas in the world (yes, the world). The state has experienced hundreds of quakes in the past few years, including a major one near Pawnee in 2016 that struck uncomfortably close to the major oil and gas transportation hub of Cushing.

The root of the problem is the state’s unique geology. It overlays the Arbuckle Group, and fluid injected into that formation has been nailed as the culprit.

The earthquakes coincide with the rapid rise in the volume of wastewater injections in the Arbuckle. The state responded slowly, but it did respond. In 2014 Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin organized the Coordinating Council on Seismic Activity to study the issue.

After the 2015 temblor, Governor Fallin set the wheels in motion to ask the industry for voluntary cutbacks. With the 2016 Pawnee quake she stepped things up a notch and issued emergency orders for disposal cutbacks.

That may have been too little, too late. The new state of affairs has caught the eye of the insurance industry, which means that a wide swath of stakeholders now has bottom line motivation to advocate for more decisive action.

The Oklahoma Water Problem

Meanwhile, Oklahoma policymakers have long recognized that the state’s water supply situation is precariously thin. The state is facing a double whammy consisting of a 300-year arid cycle…

Oklahoma water fracking oil gas

… and climate change:

Oklahoma fracking earthquakes climate change

In 2011, state legislators put aside their political differences to address the issue. Here’s a snippet from The Oklahoman:

“The current drought and heat are stark reminders of why we need a responsible water policy foundation in Oklahoma,” said Rep. Phil Richardson, R-Minco, a co-chairman of the Joint Legislative Water Committee. “More droughts and extreme weather are sure to come, and if we’re not prepared, water supplies will dry up and infrastructure will break down.”

Science!

The result was the 2012 Water for 2060 Act. That piece of legislation made Oklahoma the first in the nation to set a goal of increasing economic and population growth without an increase in overall fresh water consumption.

The new law provided a platform for implementing the Oklahoma Comprehensive Water Plan, but there are very few teeth in the current plan. Here’s the rundown from Fallin’s office:

The act calls for the use of voluntary conservation, water infrastructure improvements and development of marginal water supplies, like produced water, that are currently underutilized.

A Voluntary Solution

That little word “voluntary” kind of kills the buzz. Nevertheless, policymakers forged ahead with a 17-member Produced Water Working Group, which was tasked with finding alternatives to wastewater injection.

In addition to treatment and reuse, the report looked at the feasibility of evaporation technologies and something they’re calling “transfer to areas of high demand.”

In a press release announcing the new report, Fallin gives the oil and gas industry a gentle poke in the right direction:

“…I know many of the oil and gas producers in Oklahoma continue to work diligently on the issue of water reuse and recycling innovation, and they remain committed to responsible development of our state’s resources…”

That’s probably not going to get much traction, but whatever.

The Oil & Gas Industry Responds … Not (So Far)

CleanTechnica will return to this topic with more details whenever they get around to fixing the link to the new report. As of this writing the report is not accessible, along with the entire Oklahoma Water Resources Board website.

A major storm knocked out power to the OWRB offices last week so that could account for the information blackout (hopefully those folks are okay!).

The oil and gas industry also appears to be waiting for that link to go live again. The American Petroleum Industry has not yet issued a formal response, and neither has the Oklahoma Oil and Gas Association (dudes, update your blog!).

Stay tuned.

Images: Los Alamos National Laboratory via OWRB.

Note: links to OWRB in this article go to Wayback Machine.





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About the Author

specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



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