— Aspen Journalism (@AspenJournalism) March 4, 2015
From KUNC (Stephanie Paige Ogburn):
When a typical oil well starts producing, there are three main products pumped out: gas, oil, and water. The amount of water is significant. In Colorado, for every barrel of oil produced in 2013, there were 6 barrels of wastewater pumped from the ground.
How that water — sometimes referred to as produced water — is treated and disposed of has become a growing issue as oil and gas production has increased in Colorado and across the United States.
Mark Engle, a U.S. Geological Survey scientist, is working to pin down just how much of the wastewater is being produced nationwide.
“Since the big explosion in shale gas and tight oil production in the last four or five years, [there is almost no data on] how much the amount of produced water has changed in the U.S,” Engle said.
Quantities of wastewater, which can be 10 times saltier than seawater and is often laced with hydrocarbons, have grown because of the shale boom, which requires continual drilling of new wells to be profitable.
“And so just to have stable production, you have to keep putting more and more and more wells in, and they are all producing water,” said Engle.
Most of these wells, drilled in shale formations like the Niobrara in Northern Colorado, or the Bakken in North Dakota, are horizontal wells that are hydraulically fractured. To do this, millions of gallons of water, chemicals, and proppants, like sand, are pumped into the ground at high pressure, opening up tiny cracks in the shale.
The goal of this process is to free up trapped oil and gas. But trapped water flows back as well. Some of that water is what was used in the fracking process, but a lot of it is also ancient water from deep within the Earth.
That wastewater picks up a lot of chemicals because of where it comes from, said Ken Carlson, an engineering professor at Colorado State University who studies energy and water issues.
While many folks worry about what’s in fracking fluid, Carlson is more concerned with the naturally occurring pollutants from deep below.
“Sometimes people think it is hazardous because of what we put down there,” said Carlson. “And the truth is, the water that comes back has been in contact with oil and gas compounds for maybe millions of years.”
Wastewater is almost always incredibly salty. It also often contains dissolved metals and compounds like benzene, a known carcinogen, said Carlson. In some places, like Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale, that wastewater can also be radioactive, as it picks up naturally occurring elements like radium from deep inside the earth. (Waste from Northern Colorado has not been shown to be more radioactive than natural background levels.)
Because of this, such water is usually disposed of, said Greg Duronlow, the environmental manager of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
“It is a waste product with some negative characteristics. So it does have to be handled carefully,” said Duronlow.
When a well is producing, companies separate the products that make them money — oil and gas — from the water. In Colorado, that water is usually stored in on-site tanks or pits that fill up. Later, it gets trucked away.
There are a few main things that happen to the wastewater after that.
By far the most common way of dealing with wastewater is disposing of it deep underground, in injection wells. While some energy companies have their own wastewater disposal wells, an injection well industry has also cropped up to meet this need. In the U.S., there are around 30,000 injection wells used to dispose of fluids from oil and gas production.
Even though wastewater is disposed of deep underground, there are still risks. Recently, some injection wells have been linked to earthquakes. Spills are also an issue. Pipelines carrying wastewater can leak, as can holding pits, and trucks transporting waste can spill it.
In Colorado, the spill rate for wastewater is very low — over the last 15 years, just 0.009 percent of all wastewater produced was spilled, according to COGCC data. The agency’s oversight over spills has grown in recent years, and it recently made its spill reporting requirements more stringent, requiring spill reports for even one barrel, rather than five.
“All spills, regardless of their size, are required to be cleaned up by an operator,” said Duronlow. The agency also has tighter restrictions around oil and gas operations that are near public water supply areas, he added.
“I would say an industry with a spill rate of a thousandth of a percent, they are working pretty hard to keep those numbers low,” Duronlow added.
While overall, the state does have a very low spill rate, simply because so much wastewater is produced, the total spill quantities can still be high. From 2005 to 2013, spill amounts ranged from 10,000 to 72,000 barrels (420,000 to 3,024,000 gallons) per year.
In 2008, in Garfield County, a rancher took a drink of water from a tap in his cabin, and swallowed a toxic mix of oil and gas related compounds, landing him in the hospital. The polluted drinking water was contaminated from a produced water holding pit that leaked; the COGCC fined the energy company Williams $432,000.
Other pits containing produced water have also leaked; Oxy USA also received a COGCC fine for contaminating two springs with produced water from leaking pits.
Some companies have tried recycling wastewater, re-using it for hydraulic fracturing future wells. In states like Pennsylvania, where disposing of wastewater is expensive, and Texas, where water is scarce, recycling has grown in popularity. Some Colorado companies are also recycling wastewater.
There are some concerns about this approach. For one, treating the wastewater creates yet another waste stream — the chemicals that were taken out of the water, and are now concentrated. Moving more water around can cause other problems, like increasing the potential for spills as the water is transported and handled.
Sometimes, wastewater is so dirty that cleaning it up to the standards they need for hydraulic fracturing just isn’t worth the cost. The COGCC is working with some companies on recycling produced water to reuse, but “it takes a lot of work to clean up the water to a point even that they want to use it,” said Duronlow.
For every new well drilled and the oil it produces, though, there will be wastewater to be dealt with. Getting a handle on that water — whether it is injected or recycled, piped or trucked — will continue to be a significant task.
From KUNC (Leigh Paterson & Inside Energy):
In 2013, Colorado and Wyoming produced around 128 million barrels of oil and a little more than 2.4 billion barrels of wastewater combined. North Dakota produced 300 million barrels of oil and nearly 360 million barrels of wastewater in 2013.
Wastewater disposal is a massive but little-known part of the oil and gas business. According to Boston-based water consulting firm Bluefield Research, the U.S. hydraulic fracturing industry spent over $6 billion in 2014 on water management. For those reasons, Colorado-based T-Rex Oil believes now is the perfect time to get into the business of wastewater disposal.
T-Rex Oil is looking to operate a wastewater disposal well in Western Nebraska, but may face an uphill battle to get the required permit. NET News Nebraska has reported that the company is facing strong opposition from residents. T-Rex’s application [.pdf] says the proposed project would be the largest operation of its type in the state, accepting upward of 80 truckloads a day of wastewater from Colorado, Wyoming and possibly Nebraska. The brine – a super salty, sometimes chemical-laden fluid – would then be processed on site before being pumped underground.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, there are around 144,000 class II wells spread across the country. Most are actually aging oil wells that companies inject with carbon dioxide or other substances to get them to produce more oil, a process known as enhanced oil recovery. Other wells are used to store fossil fuels and about 20 percent are used to dispose of wastewater.
The wells used for brine disposal is what worries residents of Nebraska’s panhandle, who have concerns about spills, groundwater contamination, and an increased risk of earthquakes.
“I just have reasonable doubts about the safety,” Jane Grove told NET Nebraska. Her ranch sits near the T-Rex’s well site.
Spills have been a concern in North Dakota, where on average, more than 2 gallons of wastewater spills per minute. Most spills occur during transportation – the wastewater has to get to the well either by truck or pipeline – or storage tanks can leak.
Earthquakes are another concern of the residents. Injection wells and oil and gas exploration have been linked to human-caused quakes, also known as “induced seismicity.” In 2014, Oklahoma was found to have had more magnitude 3 or greater quakes than California. Greeley, Colorado had a brush with a human-caused temblor in 2014 as well, where activities at an injection were linked to a magnitude 3.2 shake. Geological activity in the area later tapered off when the well was shut for evaluation and later allowed to start operating again, albeit at lower pressures and volumes.
To many they are invisible, but injection wells, for now, are vital to the industry because they are the cheapest and most available way to dispose of oil and gas wastewater. As Justin Haigler, president of Black Bison — Wyoming’s largest water services company — notes, “without this water management, oil and gas doesn’t happen.”
More oil and gas coverage here.
On Monday the City of Aspen officially ended its pursuit of a hydroelectric generation plant on Castle Creek — Aspen JournalismFebruary 25, 2015
From The Denver Post (Bruce Finley):
A spill from an underground pipeline northeast of Denver has contaminated soil and possibly groundwater — the latest of at least 13 spills over the past year from oil and gas pipelines that are largely unregulated.
While none of the recent spills appears unusually large, they highlight a gray area in how Colorado and other states are handling the domestic energy boom.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission receives spill reports but does not regulate or inspect pipelines beyond well pads, COGCC spokesman Todd Hartman said. Federal authorities say they regulate interstate pipelines that transport oil and gas, but this does not cover tens of thousands of miles of production-related pipelines within states.
The Colorado Public Utilities Commission regulates nonliquid gas lines around the state, PUC pipeline safety chief Joe Molloy said.
But no government agency regulates the proliferating production and other pipelines that carry natural gas liquids, Molloy said. These can be hazardous, containing ethane, propane and cancer-causing benzene.
A DCP Midstream operator saw stained surface soil about 7 miles north of Keenesburg on Jan. 30 and reported the spill. DCP has excavated 7 cubic yards of the soil and deployed a contractor to conduct lab tests for benzene and other toxic chemicals and to find the leak.
DCP officials “don’t have any more information just yet on source or contamination levels or groundwater impacts of the spill near the Tampa Compressor,” corporate spokeswoman Sarah Rasmussen said. “All of that is still being investigated and assessed.”
Moving oil and gas through pipelines promises safety and environment benefits — an alternative to trains and tanker trucks. For companies, pipelines can be cheaper, depending on fuel costs. In recent years, more trains are hauling crude oil from North Dakota and tar sands from Canada, leading to accidents such as last week’s disasters in Ontario and West Virginia.
Nationwide, more than 2.6 million miles of underground pipelines carry natural gas, crude oil and natural gas liquids from producing fields to refineries, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
But PHMSA officials estimate more than 200,000 miles of “gathering line” pipelines are unregulated in Colorado and other states.
The federal authorities are considering expanding their purview to regulate and inspect these pipelines, PHMSA spokesman Damon Hill said.
“We’re here to make sure operators are doing all they can to protect the environment and the safety of the public that may live near these pipelines,” Hill said.
“There’s a lot of development in the country where pipelines that were once in rural areas are no longer as rural. A lot of homes and businesses are now located near these pipelines. We want to make sure operators are indeed making sure the unregulated pipelines are safe.”
In recent Colorado legislative sessions, industry officials pushed to bolster companies’ power to condemn private property in order to install more pipelines.
Yet the impact of pipelines and spills from pipelines remains uncertain.
The COGCC spill database shows DCP reported 13 spills from its pipelines since February 2014. Most appear relatively minor, due to human error or equipment problems, though toxic material in some cases has contaminated groundwater.
Among the spills:
• In January, a DCP trencher hit a pipeline in Weld County, causing a spill, leading to an excavation of 40 cubic yards of contaminated soil.
• In November, a trencher hit an 8-inch pipeline and the spill contaminated groundwater — within a half mile of two water wells — spreading contamination at levels above the standards. DCP contractors excavated 370 cubic yards of soil and removed 40 barrels of contaminated groundwater.
• In September, five to 100 barrels of liquids leaked from a 10-inch underground pipeline inside the town of Frederick.
Colorado regulators have not taken enforcement action in response to any of these spills, according to COGCC records.
“A spill by itself doesn’t necessarily result in enforcement steps, but failure to report it, contain it and clean it up will,” Hartman said.
DCP officials pointed out that the COGCC lowered its threshold for reporting spills in 2014.
“In general, increases in reported releases in 2014 are likely attributable to this substantially lower reporting threshold,” Rasmussen said. For example, she said, DCP reported five spills in 2013 compared with 11 in 2014.
DCP Midstream operates 4,000 miles of various natural gas and natural gas liquids pipelines, Rasmussen said.
Oil and Gas Accountability Project organizer Josh Jos wick said state regulators must do more to regulate and inspect pipelines.
“What are the ages of the pipelines that the product is put through now? How well were they put in? Are they being inspected? Was the right material used? The state does not know,” Joswick said.
“We should not just sit here saying ‘Yeah, you can go wherever you want to go.’ That’s too dangerous. There’s too much potential for really negative impacts if something goes wrong.”
More oil and gas coverage here.