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Desalination_1The search for solutions to the Permian Basin’s water quandaries lead almost invariably to one destination: desalination.

Anthony Smith claimed water treatment and re-use will be a critical focus going forward in the Permian Basin.

“We have a big opportunity to treat and re-use flowback and produced water on daily basis,” offered Smith, the Permian Basin Assets Team field water foreman for Pioneer Natural Resources, one of the largest leaseholders and operators in the Permian Basin. “Expenses are always a concern, but when you compare cleaning water versus drilling new water wells, water treatment is becoming more competitive. When we have a known quantity coming back every day when you treat flowback or produced water, it can be a dependable supply for subsequent completions. Recycling of produced water allows us to use a water source that would otherwise need to be disposed.”

In part one of the Permian Basin Oil and Gas Magazine’s series on water last month, Barney Austin, Ph.D., who is director of hydrologic services for Intera, a leader in geosciences and engineering consulting with corporate headquarters in Austin but offices around the world as well, said drought-stricken West Texas has to “think outside the box” in solving its water shortage issues.

In addition to treating flowback or produced water with mobile units at the well site or finding more fresh-water sources, another of those “outside-the box” solutions, according to Austin, is desalination, which could treat brackish water so it could be re-used for a variety of purposes. The Permian Basin has an abundance of brackish water, but it is not fit for use in fracking or agricultural irrigation, much less as drinking water, because of its high salinity.

The previous method of providing water for dry West Texas was “dig a hole in the ground and pray for rain,” noted Kyle Frazier, executive director of the newly formed Texas Desalination Association in Austin. “Most of our reservoirs were built in the 1950s, during the last big drought. We have to produce new water, and the only way to do that is to take unusable water and make it usable.”

Desalination is certainly not a new concept. It is used to provide drinking water for cities around the world. In fact, nearly 50 cities around Texas have desalination facilities. But as demands increase with growing populations, not to mention the need for large amounts of fresh water used in the hydraulic fracturing process of horizontal wells, many entities are exploring the possibility of desalination of brackish water as a source to satisfy the ever-growing quest for water.

“Suddenly, brackish water could become a commodity,” said Frazier. “It is a fallacy that it [desalination] is extraordinarily expensive. When you compare it to the cost of bringing raw water from a distance to where you need it, or compare it to building reservoirs over 30 years, desalination is competitive. And it is extremely competitive when you have no water and it is water available in the near term.”

Using Desalination

When one hears the term “desalination,” the first thought is taking the salt out of sea water. Brackish water, however, does not have anywhere close to as much salinity as sea water, according to Dr. Robert Mace, deputy executive administrator for the Texas Water Development Board. He runs the TWDB’s water science and conservation group.

“Sea water is over 35,000 parts per million of dissolved solids,” he explained. “Brackish groundwater starts at 1,000 parts per million, so it is much more cost effective to desalinate: there’s not as much salt to remove! The cost of desalination of brackish groundwater is comparable to building a reservoir. But you have to have a good aquifer.”

Mace admitted, however, there is economics of scale to consider, meaning in some cases it is hard to justify the cost of desalination for the oil and gas industry because of its large number of scattered small projects, as compared to a city’s centralized need for water. Desalination is being used in a number of places, though.

“El Paso has the largest inland municipal desalination facility in the world,” he stated. “It has a capacity of 27.5 million gallons a day.”

By treating brackish water for use as drinking water, Mace said, El Paso is killing two birds with one stone.

“One, of course, is providing a source of drinking water,” he emphasized. “And two, by doing that, El Paso is protecting the fresh ground water supply from saline water intrusion. Desalination is an important part of our future water needs. Because of the drought, there is more interest in desalination than just a few years ago. People in West Texas are seeing that surface water may not be as reliable as they once thought.”Desalination_2

He said the small West Texas town of Dell City has been using desalination to produce its drinking water since 1967. Fort Stockton has a desalination facility, and Abilene is building a desalination plant for surface water. Laguna Madre on South Padre Island is looking to build the state’s first sea water desalination plant, he added.

Folks from one coast to the other, according to Mace, simply want to use the most affordable water possible. In dry West Texas, that solution may have to include desalination, at least as a backup plan.

For example, Mace said the Colorado River Municipal Water District is pursuing a desalination project in the Pecos Valley aquifer. San Antonio is building a 10-million gallon per day plant, and Brownsville currently has a desalination plant to handle 7.5 million gallons per day.

“The technology is there,” he emphasized. “We are seeing the adoption of technology. There is no shortage of brackish water, but there is a challenge of yields. The Colorado River Municipal Water District is building a 43-mile pipeline to find an adequate yield.”

Desalination Association

In an effort to bring the desalination solution of brackish water to the forefront, the Texas Desalination Association was formed in late 2011. Its membership includes interested industry and water treatment companies, as well as municipal and regional water districts.

“We spent 2012 getting organized,” said Frazier, who has a background as a lobbyist but will serve as executive director of the new association. “We have built membership with reasonably good success. The public is agreeable and very interested. When we first started, we tried to come up with a focus. Desalination for drinking water is our main focus. But not far behind is working with the oil and gas industry, power generators, and manufacturers.”

Of course, the oil and gas industry in the state is booming, bringing the need for not only more water for use by the industry but also more water required by cities such as Midland and Odessa that are experiencing remarkable growth because of the oil and gas industry.

“It is a great problem to have,” Frazier continued. “The oil and gas industry is going gangbusters. But that success brings challenges. Using water efficiently is a challenge.”

He said there a number of companies doing cutting edge technology in treating water.

“We are trying to get those people in front of producers,” he stated.

Companies have built massive sea water desalination facilities all over the world to supply water for entire cities, according to Frazier. One of the challenges for oil and gas producers, however, is that their wells are scattered.

“It will take some type of regional process, with a group of oil and gas producers contracting with a desalination group,” he contended. “Whether it is skid-mounted mobile units or a regional facility, more and more companies are using more water. I expect it will take a mix of both. We are serving as a clearinghouse to get the oil and gas industry meeting face-to-face with desalination companies. Ultimately, the use of brackish water for drinking water will ease up all other uses of water. We are going to use every drop of water we can find.’

Legislative proposals

The Texas Desalination Association has put together a package of proposals for the Texas Legislature, which convened in January, to consider.

“About 50 communities in Texas have desalination wells,” Frazier said. “Cities have to drill test wells to prove they have brackish water. The cost of drilling a test well is $0.5 million to $1 million. Many small communities don’t have the money to do that. We are asking the state to provide matching grants with cities for drilling test wells.”

Another proposal from the desalination association is asking the legislature to kick in $6 million so the Laguna Madre sea water desalination plant can be finished.

“We are also asking to give the legislature the option to help other plants get up and running,” he added.

The Texas Desalination Association is proposing a bill, too, that will hopefully allow the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to streamline its permitting process and ease restrictions regarding the drilling of wells and construction of desalination facilities.

Capitan Reef Aquifer

The Capitan Reef, a brackish water aquifer that underlies large portions of the Permian Basin, could be a future source of water in the region, according to Gil Van Deventer, a hydrogeologist who is a partner in Trident Environmental in Midland.

“I am asked to assess groundwater resources for oil and gas and power utility clients, such as the clean coal plant that will be built in Penwell,” he explained.

Van Deventer is also a member of the Region F water planning group, which covers 32 counties in West Texas. That group is charged with providing a 50-year plan for the region’s future water needs, a plan that is updated every five years.

He said it is hard to assess the amount of water being used by the oil and gas industry. The most recent estimates from the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas were compiled before the most recent fracking craze, he claimed. Also, Van Deventer said there isn’t as much traditional water flooding being employed today, but water requirements are up because of the horizontal wells being drilled.

“You might have to drill 10 vertical wells to equal one of these horizontal wells,” he offered. “How much water would those 10 wells take? I believe the horizontal wells with the large multi-stage fracs are making more efficient use of water than the number of vertical wells necessary to produce the same amount of oil.”

Van Deventer added that the amount of water used in horizontal drilling or other uses pales by comparison to the amount of water used by agriculture. Sixty to 70 percent of groundwater resources in Texas are used for agricultural purposes, whereas oil and gas and the mining industry use less than 5 percent.

He said some are looking to the horseshoe-shaped Capitan Reef aquifer as a future potential source of water. The top of the Capitan Reef is 2,500 to 3,500 feet deep. The quality of the water varies. For example, he said it has 5,000 to 20,000 milligrams per liter of total dissolved solids in Ward and Winkler counties. The water may be of better quality in Pecos County, but all of the Capitan Reef Aquifer has a sulfide component in it as well.

“Beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, Shell and Gulf were producing Capitan water for water flooding,” he explained. “Oxy owns one of those systems now, northwest of Kermit in Winkler County, with an established dispensing system to the east for that purpose.”

Occidental Petroleum’s system does not have any desalination facilities associated with it, however.

Politics and water

A number of municipalities and water districts are now looking at using brackish Capitan Reef water to supplement their water requirements. But there is controversy involved.

For example, Van Deventer said Fort Stockton, which currently desalinates water from the Edwards/Trinity Aquifer for its drinking water, also owns the rights to water from the Capitan Reef. Fort Stockton approached Odessa recently about drilling a test well for the Capitan Reef.

“The Capitan has a good amount of water,” he added. “It is under pressure, so it may flow several thousand gallons per minute. Of course, no one knows how long it will flow at those levels. The Texas Water Development Board is in progress of doing a groundwater availability model for the Capitan Reef Aquifer. After completion of the model, affected water districts may use the model to manage the usage of Capitan water just as it does for the Edwards-Trinity and other aquifers.”

Although the Odessa Development Corporation is willing to pay for the test well with the hopes of eventually purchasing Capitan Reef water from Fort Stockton, those plans could be stalled by a pending court case.

In 2011, the Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District denied a permit for Midland oilman Clayton Williams and Fort Stockton Holdings to export 41 million gallons of Edwards-Trinity water per day from land Williams holds in Pecos County. Williams is already permitted to use that amount for agricultural purposes. (He raises irrigated alfalfa on his land south of Fort Stockton and can continue to use the water for those agricultural purposes despite the ruling.) The new permit, however, would have allowed the transport of the water to a freshwater district in Midland that was established in 2010.

That case is still tied up in court and could conceivably impact any effort by Fort Stockton to sell Capitan Reef water to Odessa.

Meanwhile, Van Deventer said the City of Midland had the foresight years ago to acquire the water rights on the T-Bar Ranch in Winkler County. When the drought of 2011 and 2012 left Midland on the verge of running out of water, the city began developing the use of Pecos Valley aquifer water from Winkler county.

“During the summer of 2012, Midland drilled 45 water supply wells completed in the Pecos Valley aquifer on its T-Bar Ranch property,” he stated. “The same T-Bar Ranch Property also overlies the much deeper Capitan Reef aquifer which Midland may develop in the years to come. However, it will require desalination to meet drinking water standards.   There is no water district controlling the Capitan Reef water in Ward and Winkler counties, but there is a tradeoff. The Capitan Reef water in Pecos County is likely to be of better quality, but it will require longer pipelines. The water in Ward and Winkler counties is closer, but it will require more desalination costs.”

Regardless of how the politics and costs resolve themselves, Van Deventer said he believes the desalination of brackish water from the Capitan Reef complex is one of the long-term answers for Midland and Odessa, as well as all of the Permian Basin.

“On down the road, we will have a need for it,” he emphasized. “Desalination is a reality, especially when compared to no water. But there are political hurdles and economic hurdles that we will have to figure out. We are at a critical juncture. Shallow groundwater and surface water supplies may not be enough to keep pace with future demands.”

Other alternatives

With nearly 900,000 acres and interest in more than 6,500 active wells in the Permian Basin, Pioneer Natural Resources is certainly one of the largest industry users of water in the region. Smith said Pioneer is doing two things to limit its impact on the Basin’s water consumption.

“Where feasible, we are accessing deeper water zones that are higher salinity [even at additional expense], to limit the use of fresh groundwater,” he offered. “And we are starting a program to recycle flowback water in the southern part of our acreage where we have a horizontal play.”

He said a couple of water treatment facilities are being planned for the first quarter of 2013 in its horizontal play in Reagan and Irion counties. He described Pioneer’s new water treatment plan as a thermal process, which will take the flowback water back to fresh water.

“It is basically distilled water, re-condensing steam,” he explained.

Pioneer, which will store the treated water for re-use in fracking other wells, is known as a leader in “vertical integration” in which it owns the equipment and does its own service work. That won’t be the case in its water treatment operations, however.

“We will use a third party,” Smith emphasized. “It is too new a part of the business to do it ourselves. There are other technologies coming along. If you buy the equipment, you are tied to that technology for a number of years. Things are changing so quickly, that may not be the best choice. We will go with a third party, and then in a few years, as we get more comfortable, we will take another look at it.”

Another solution that Pioneer is exploring is drilling into the lesser-known Santa Rosa Sandstone aquifer, which is about 1,300 to 1,500 feet deep and runs all the way from Seminole south to Big Lake.

Thus far, Pioneer hasn’t seen the results from the Santa Rosa wells that it had hoped to see, according to Smith. While the company has made better wells with 80 to 100 gallons a minute in the north, other Santa Rosa water wells are making only 20 to 30 gallons per minute.

“We haven’t completed all the wells we have drilled,” he stated. “The Santa Rosa wells represent only a five to 10 percent increase in our available water supply. If we can do some different things, it might help us out. We are keeping our fingers crossed that we can access better wells.”

With the relatively low salt content of only 1,000 to 6,000 or 7,000 parts per million in the Santa Rosa wells, Smith said Pioneer is mixing it with its fresh water supply, thus eliminating the need to treat it.

Key to the future

Whether it is finding new sources of water, treating and re-using flowback or produced water, or practicing desalination of brackish water from aquifers such as the Capitan Reef—or all of the above—one thing is for certain: Water is the key to the future of the oil and gas industry in the Permian Basin, not to mention the key to the future of West Texas itself.

As of the 2000 census, the population in the 32-county Region F of West Texas was 578,814. In 2006, Region F used nearly 610,000 acre-feet of water, according to the Region F Water Plan. Approximately 69 percent of the current water use in the region is for irrigated agriculture, followed by municipal use, mining (including the oil and gas industry), steam-electric power generation, livestock watering, and manufacturing, according to the report. Van Deventer acknowledged that those numbers don’t take into account the increased water usage for the large multi-stage hydraulic fracturing being employed in today’s expanded horizontal drilling projects.

The population of Region F is projected to grow from 578,814 in 2000 to 724,094 in 2060, an average growth rate of 0.37 percent per year. Obviously, that figure doesn’t reflect the remarkable growth that Midland and Odessa have experienced in the last two years, either. Water usage is expected to increase from 600,000 acre-feet in 2006 to 814,911 acre-feet by 2060, according to the Region F water plan.

So what happens if the region can’t come up with the necessary water supplies? The Texas Water Development Board projected the region’s 2060 population would be reduced by 49,236, which is approximately seven percent. Without any additional water supplies, the projected water needs would reduce the regional’s projected 2060 employment by 40,877 jobs, an 18 percent decrease.

As Intera’s Austin said, it will take thinking “outside the box” and using every possible method to produce every possible drop of water. Water will be the critical issue of the future for West Texas.

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