Water used for oil and gas development is a significant volume, more than 5 billion gallons per year, but yet is a small percentage of overall U.S. water use, less than 1%. However, as with the diversity of the landscape and geology of the United States, there is diversity within the volumes of water required for oil and gas. Some wells require more water than others. Unconventional production, including hydraulic fracturing, requires significantly more water than conventional oil and gas development.
Sourcing water for oil and gas operations includes locating and transporting the resource to the production site. Some factors operators consider include legal access to the resource, proximity to the drill site, seasonal availability, water quality, the availability of electricity, the budget and the drilling schedule. Some major obstacles that arise include economic, environmental and ecological issues. Transportation costs alone hover around $1 per barrel of water per hour of transport, which adds up quickly when considering the volumes of water required for hydraulic fracturing. When water sources may be endangered by the volume of water withdrawn, regulating agencies may prescribe a specific streamflow, the passby flow, at which withdrawal must cease. Also, withdrawing water from any inhabited body of water introduces the risk of impingement, in which aquatic life is sucked against pump screens, and entrainment, in which aquatic life is sucked out of its habitat and into pipes or trucks.
Operators are turning to integrated technological solutions to mitigate the risks associated with water sourcing. For example, automated stream flow monitoring at the pump site can shut down pumps as the installation reaches withdrawal limits and passby flows. Similarly, integrating rail, pipeline and truck can reduce the financial risk, and environmental footprint of oil and gas operations. Especially when transporting water long distances, rail is efficient and effective in arid regions. Building a piped water infrastructure, while initially a significant capital investment, eliminates the need for trucks on the road, cutting carbon emissions, truck traffic and road damage.
Images: “Water Intake” by Dave Yoxtheimer, Penn State