March 2021

Water management

What is the future of oilfield water management?
Mark Patton / Hydrozonix

This interesting question is wrapped in uncertainty. What can we expect out of a Biden EPA, for example? If we look at the Keystone XL Pipeline decision, it should send a chill down your spine. Not because of the job loss, but the message it sends.

You see, a pipeline reduces emissions by over 90%, so the greenest thing to do would be approve the pipeline. Cancelling the pipeline means that the oil destined for the pipeline will continue coming to the U.S. via trucks and rail. Cancelling the Keystone XL Pipeline didn’t change oil demand, it just made sure that oil would cost more to get to market while creating more pollution along the way. We can expect more of these types of actions, those that are anti-oil and not greener.

WOTUS definition. So, how will this affect oilfield water management? It’s hard to say, but actions on the definition of “Waters of The United States” (WOTUS) will likely be the next shoe to drop. There are currently 14 cases against the Trump administration’s limiting the definition of WOTUS. Why is this important? Under the Clean Water Act (CWA), it is prohibited to discharge any pollutant into navigable waters, and the CWA defines navigable waters as WOTUS without any further definition.

This led to a lot of court cases and interpretation issues, but under the Obama administration, they decided to take advantage of this vague definition and expand it to include pits, retention ponds, and stormwater runoff, among other things. This meant huge fines and/or very expensive permits for landowners. It also meant that every time it rained, the runoff that drained in any way to any water source, which could somehow connect to a larger navigable water source, could be a discharge. And without a permit, it would be an illegal discharge.

So, we can expect the Biden administration to direct the EPA to stop defending the 14 cases, with a likely reversal of Trump’s policy to remove the widening of the WOTUS definition. This can complicate things like agricultural reuse of produced water or any discharge of it.

This won’t end with WOTUS. As a result, we need to act decisively and transparently, as relates to issues of Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG). I see major operators making announcements on carbon neutrality and carbon footprint, yet decisions are made every day that increase carbon footprint and move them further away from carbon neutrality.

Carbon footprint. Then, there is the issue of how to measure carbon footprint. Many people believe, for example, that putting solar panels on their homes makes them carbon-neutral, assuming one generates enough electricity from solar year-round. What everybody ignores is that a carbon footprint exists in the manufacturing of solar panels, and one needs to operate them for years to offset the manufactured footprint. So, our first step is to universally agree on how we determine our carbon footprint, because today, some widely inaccurate concepts being used should be avoided. Without this transparency, we will continue to be attacked. So, what does evaluating carbon footprint mean for oilfield water management?

Believe it or not, most of what we do today is moving us in the right direction. For example, pipelines over trucks is a huge reduction in carbon footprint. Last column, I discussed solids control, which is a significant opportunity to reduce carbon footprint. Every chemical we use has a carbon footprint associated with it. Then there is the additional footprint associated with delivering these chemicals to distributors, and then the distributors to the field. So, in the case of solids control, gravity settling is not only less expensive, it also has a much lower carbon footprint than using chemical coagulation or other energy-intensive processes.

Another consideration is onsite chemical generation versus delivered product. Now, this can be tricky. Some onsite generation requires a delivered product as a consumable, so we have to be careful about this comparison, but it’s important to make it. Our water management strategy needs to include a carbon footprint evaluation, because continuing to make decisions that increase our carbon footprint, moves us farther from carbon-neutral, not closer.

We can all appreciate that carbon capture will be in our future, which means there will be a cost for every pound of carbon captured. If we transparently address this issue, define what we call our carbon footprint, and make decisions that decrease that carbon footprint, carbon neutrality is more attainable and has much more credibility. Gone are the days, when we can say we planted 5,000 trees to offset our carbon footprint. There needs to be way more science and validation behind our ESG programs, or they will be challenged.

Let’s act decisively. I brought up WOTUS for a couple reasons: It will impact the future of oilfield water management, but there is a lesson there. The vagueness of the WOTUS definition kept this issue in the courts, and it likely will remain in the courts. We can’t let this be the case with carbon footprint. We need a legitimately validated formula that is transparent, or we can expect continued legal challenges seen with WOTUS and climate science. We also can’t call subcontractors’ carbon footprints irrelevant. Not including these emissions is disingenuous and is part of the reason much of the public doesn’t trust our industry.

So, let’s adopt transparency into our ESG programs and act decisively. We will not be taken seriously as an industry, if we don’t adopt transparency and make carbon footprint a criterion to our decision-making, as critical as safety. If we accomplish this, oilfield water management can begin to lead us down the path toward carbon neutrality. We can lead, follow or become irrelevant. It’s time we chose to lead.

About the Authors
Mark Patton
Mark Patton is president of Hydrozonix and has more than 30 years of experience developing water and waste treatment systems for the oil and gas industry. This includes design, permitting and operation of commercial and private treatment systems, both nationally and internationally. He has seven produced water patents and two patents pending. He earned his B.S. in chemical engineering from the University of Southern California (USC) in 1985.
Related Articles FROM THE ARCHIVE
Connect with World Oil
Connect with World Oil, the upstream industry's most trusted source of forecast data, industry trends, and insights into operational and technological advances.