What Is Oil And Gas Wastewater And What Do We Do With It? — KUNC

March 2, 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.

The state of oil and gas pipeline regulation in Colorado

February 24, 2015
DJ Basin Exploration via the Oil and Gas Journal

DJ Basin Exploration via the Oil and Gas Journal

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.

Colorado Division of Water Resources: Well Construction Rules 2015 Rulemaking ― Proposed Changes to the 2005 Rules

February 20, 2015

“Central Valley…groundwater pumping…the very definition of unsustainable” — The Mountain Town News

February 17, 2015

Groundwater movement via the USGS

Groundwater movement via the USGS

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

To grasp the immensity of the groundwater pumping in California during the last century, think back to the last time you flew into Las Vegas. Before descending into McCarran International Airport, you may have swept across Lake Mead. When full, the reservoir is 112 miles long and up to 532 feet deep. It can hold up 28 million acre-feet of water, or about two average-year flows of the Colorado River before diversions.

That, according to the Los Angeles Times, is how much water has been removed from California’s Central Valley since the advent of groundwater pumping. It’s staggering, the very definition of unsustainable.

Groundwater depletion is a problem not just in California, but across the country. Resources created during geologic timescales are being depleted in human lifetimes for cities and farms. In the United States, 14 percent of all water used to irrigate crops comes from mining groundwater aquifers.

Cheap energy and advances in pumping technology around the end of World War II accelerated this depletion. We have gained the artifice of cheap food and irrigated luxuriance in arid environments. The extraction of water above the rate of recharge is now close to 400 cubic kilometers.

“We are robbing our savings account,” says Andrew Stone, executive director of the American Ground Water Trust. Stone points out that population growth and the uncertain effects of climate change will apply more pressure to these subterranean savings accounts.

It’s not inevitable that we pinch these piggy banks until they’re empty. Los Angeles after World War II turned to groundwater exploitation to satisfy growth. But over time it was able to shift to other mechanisms, including recycling, to meet population needs.

Agriculture regions have been slower to adapt. The Central Valley has been Exhibit A in groundwater mining for many decades. It’s 450 miles up and down and, at a maximum, 60 miles wide and wonderfully productive. One-eighth of total agriculture production in the United States occurs here on 1 percent of the land. From avocados to artichokes, potatoes to peppers, much of your grocery store’s produce likely comes from the Central Valley. “Everyone eats there,” as a headline in the New York Times Magazine noted several years ago.

Snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada provides some of the water for the crops, but aquifers have allowed the great expansion of farming. This is mining, and similar to mining for ores, aquifer pumping can cause the earth itself to subside. One famous photograph taken in California’s Central Valley in the 1970s of a tall telephone pole showed the extent of subsidence, nearly 30 feet at that point.


Soon after that photograph was taken, proposals to methodically address groundwater depletion were laid on the desk of California’s handsome young governor, Jerry Brown. It went nowhere. The issue was too fractious in California then. Only baby steps were taken over the next several decades.

Other states in the West have been more aggressive in adopting state-wide regulation. Colorado’s regulations, for example, were adopted in the late 1960s. They haven’t been a cure-all. Unsustainable extraction of the Ogallala aquifer continues. Denver’s fast-growing southern suburbs, with some of the wealthiest and best-education demographics in the country, depend almost 100 percent on rapidly declining aquifers.

There is no one answer to this unsustainable aquifer mining. Certainly, increased recycling will be one response, as it has been in Los Angeles and soon will be in Denver’s south suburbs. We’ll have to revise our expectations of landscaping, and continue to tinker with how technology can make more efficient use of our supply.

In California, Gov. Brown, now bald and in his 70s, last September signed a trio of laws that together give local jurisdictions tools for planning how to achieve sustainability by 2040. Sustainability here is defined as aquifers recharging, through percolation or direct injection, as rapidly as they are withdrawn. But the laws also reserve a big stick. If local jurisdictions don’t, the state eventually will elbow into local affairs to get the planning done.

Recycling alone can’t alone be the answer for California’s Central Valley or other regions west of the 100th meridian so utterly dependent upon mining of aquifers. Fundamentally, our cheap food, like our cheap energy, is an illusion.

A century ago, hard-rock miners were still making a mess of the West, clawing out high-value minerals and creating the acid-mine drainage, now a significant problem and expense. Ignorance perhaps excuses their actions. With groundwater mining, we have no excuse. We already know we’re on unstable ground.

More groundwater coverage here.

Higher streamflow, groundwater Subdistrict No. 1 curtailments, boost unconfined aquifer by 71,440 acre-feet in 2014

January 25, 2015
Blanca Wetlands via the National Park Service

Blanca Wetlands via the National Park Service

From The Pueblo Chieftain (Matt Hildner):

Irrigators and water officials looking to conserve groundwater in the San Luis Valley got a small dose of good news this week. The volume in the unconfined aquifer — the shallower of the valley’s two major groundwater bodies — increased by 71,440 acre-feet in 2014.

“We did turn the corner,” said Allen Davey, an engineer who conducts the Rio Grande Water Conservation District’s groundwater monitoring.

The increase was the first since 2009.

Davey attributed the hike to better stream flows than had been seen in recent years.

He also pointed to a decline in pumping in Subdistrict No. 1, which has used a combination of fees on pumping and the fallowing of farm ground to reduce demand on the aquifer in the north-central part of the valley.

The unconfined aquifer has traditionally been used by farmers in the valley to water crops like potatoes, barley and alfalfa when the availability of surface water declines in mid- to late-summer.

Recharge to the shallow aquifer occurs from streams entering the San Luis Valley floor, canal leakage and irrigation return flows.

Despite this year’s slight improvement, the unconfined aquifer has declined by more than 1.2 million acre-feet since monitoring began in 1976.

An acre-foot is the equivalent of roughly 325,000 gallons of water.

The long-term decline is of concern to the managers of Subdistrict No. 1, who have the goal of increasing the volume of the unconfined aquifer by 800,000 to 1 million acre-feet.

David Robbins is an attorney for the Rio Grande district, which acts as the umbrella organization for the subdistrict.

He said the subdistrict’s board is wrestling with the question of whether to seek a change in its water management plan.

“There are many within the subdistrict boundaries and elsewhere who are concerned there hasn’t been a more dramatic increase in water supply within the subdistrict,” he said.

More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here and here.

San Luis Valley: Is Closed-Basin Project water a legal source of supply for groundwater sub-districts?

January 17, 2015
Scales of Justice

Scales of Justice

From the Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):

Whether or not Closed Basin Project water can be used to offset injurious depletions in the San Luis Valley’s first water management sub-district is a question resting with the Colorado Supreme Court.

If the higher court decides project water is not appropriate for that purpose, water management sub-districts would have to find about 9,000 acre feet of water from other sources, according to Steve Vandiver, general manager for the sub-districts ‘ sponsoring district, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District. Vandiver reported on the status of the sub-districts and associated legal action during the Rio Grande Roundtable meeting this week in Alamosa .

“We are still waiting on the Colorado Supreme Court decision on the use of Closed Basin Project water for our depletions’ replacement,” Vandiver said. “Nobody knows when it will come out.”

He said the court held a hearing the end of September, and decisions usually follow within four or five months.

The sponsoring water district and its first and subsequently pending sub-districts are hopeful the higher court will allow the Closed Basin Project water to be used to replace depletions caused by wells in the basin (San Luis Valley), Vandiver said. He said if the court decides against that, it would double the amount of money that has to be spent to meet water replacement obligations and require another 9,000 acre feet of water to be acquired and stored.

“It’s a very critical decision ,” he said. “We still have to meet the requirements, whether or not we can use that source for replacing depletions.”

Opponents to the use of Closed Basin Project water for depletions maintain it is double dipping to use water from the federal water salvage project to both meet Rio Grande Compact obligations and sub-district depletions at the same time. They also argue that it would be inappropriate to use well water, which would always be junior to surface senior water rights, to replace depletions to senior rights caused by other wells.

Sub-district #1 has used Closed Basin Project to help replace depletions since 2012. Vandiver said this week that currently Closed Basin Project water is being used on a daily basis to replace depletions owed during the current annual replacement plan year, which ends the end of April. The next annual replacement plan for Subdistrict #1 is due April 15.

He said WildEarth Guardians filed a Freedom Of Information Act request for all documents regarding the Closed Basin Project since its inception, but he did not know what the group intended to use the information for.

Vandiver said the subdistrict likely to be completed next is Sub-district #2, covering wells in the alluvial system directly tied to the Rio Grande. It has the fewest number of wells and well owners. Many have already filed petitions to be in the subdistrict , and the sub-district’s working group hopes to finish the petition process by the end of this month and present their sub-district for formal approval to the Rio Grande Water Conservation District board during its March meeting .

Sub-district #4 goes underneath Sub-district #2 and picks up all the confined wells, Vandiver added. Other subdistricts cover other areas in the Valley such as Conejos River, San Luis Creek and Saguache Creek.

Vandiver said all of the subdistricts are moving forward so they can be in place before the state rules and regulations governing groundwater come into force.

More San Luis Valley groundwater coverage here.

Awash in facts: Water well on Greeley Central’s property teaches students about groundwater — The Greeley Tribune

January 13, 2015
Groundwater monitoring well

Groundwater monitoring well

From The Greeley Tribune (Dan England):

Liz Mock-Murphy expected a little whining from her Greeley Central High School students as she led them outside. Flakes fell from a sky as gray as the icy snow under their feet. The wind fastened a blade to the temperature of just a few puny degrees.

Mock-Murphy winced herself, and she wore a heavy coat and a fuzzy hat with huge earmuffs, the kind used by those who enjoy ice fishing in the mountains. Even Brian Brinkmeier, field supervisor for Quality Well and Pump, wondered how long he could keep his guys, dressed in beefy coats and hats and gloves, outside. They would need breaks in the truck, he said. The students almost looked naked by comparison.

Then Mock-Murphy and her students saw the yellow well tower just a few yards from the entrance. She was pleasantly surprised by their reaction.

“They thought it was really, really exciting,” she said. “I’m not kidding.”

Maybe Mock-Murphy’s students were just used to the cold, given the extended snap that’s blanketed Greeley, or maybe they’re AP environmental science students, so getting to see a water well helped them forget the frostbite. Or maybe, just maybe, they’re excited about applying what they’ve learned to the real world.

The well is part of the Well Watch Project, which hopes to help teachers and students understand the importance of our groundwater through monitoring wells drilled on school properties. The project actually began in 1991 when the Central Colorado Water Conservancy District installed the first well at Eaton Elementary School. By 1995, 16 were added from Eaton to Pueblo. But because there was no way to store and analyze data collected by students, the interest dried up.

The water conservancy district partnered with the Poudre Learning Center to revitalize the project in 2010. Now three wells are at the learning center. One was installed at Platteville Middle School in September, and now there’s the one at Greeley Central. The project teaches students how groundwater occurs, how long it takes to replenish and, perhaps most important, how easily it can be contaminated, as students will monitor for nitrates and the acidity of the water, as well as its oxygen content.

“So they’ll just be able to walk outside, open up a well, drop a line and pull water out of the earth,” Mock-Murphy said.

They can then compare those results with the other wells scattered throughout in the program. Remember how there was no way to store the data in the mid-1990s? The Internet solves that problem now.

Mock-Murphy, like most instructors, prefers to teach this way. She could show them a diagram and talk about a well that delivers water to farmland in Weld, and her AP students would probably get it, but it wouldn’t stick beyond a test. Or she can walk them outside, pull up some water and ask them what could happen if she dumped a bunch of chemicals in it.

“Anytime your students can collect real-time data, they internalize the knowledge,” Mock-Murphy said.

She can, in other words, not only test the water, but also explain that the sand they pull up with it is proof of an ocean that once covered the land.

There’s another reason to help students “internalize” information about groundwater, said Chuck Call, a steward for the Poudre Learning Center who helped put the project together. Most adults don’t realize how important it is to keep groundwater clean, he said. Some rural areas, like those in Weld County, use groundwater for drinking. It’s also a backup to the water in our reservoirs and rivers, and if that water is polluted, Call said, what water would we drink?

“We need an informed public,” Call said. “They will be the ones voting on these issues in the future.”

This isn’t just for an exercise or a test, Mock-Murphy said. The data the kids collect will carry over for years. In fact, that data is one of the reasons Quality Well and Pump donated its equipment and manpower to drill the well at Greeley Central. The company wants to know those numbers, too.

The water conservancy district hopes to expand that collection of data to measure what fracking is doing to the groundwater. There’s no current way for the students to measure that under the parameters of the program, but the district hopes to work with organizations soon to find a way.

That’s one goal. There are other, larger goals. They hope for more wells at more schools, and they will re-drill the ones they lost when the program died in the early ’90s. They will host a second-annual class in the spring to teach more instructors about the project. The goal is to make the water wells part of science instruction throughout Weld County. The groundwater already plays a part in students’ lives. Now they want it to be part of their studies.

More education coverage here.


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