Fracking companies slowly shift to recycling wastewater

Amid drought and high water prices, bigger companies take on extra expense

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MIDLAND, Texas — It's not just oil and natural gas that comes out of the ground here. For every barrel of oil pumped to the surface, more than another barrel of water from deep within the earth comes up alongside it.

With a hue that ranges from gray to black and an odor that resembles gasoline, the water is typically pumped into disposal wells thousands of feet underground. All the while, hydraulic fracturing operations pull billions of gallons of fresh water a year from aquifers that also supply water to cities and farms.

With a yearslong drought depleting water supplies across prime drilling areas in South and West Texas, pressure on oil and gas companies has been ramping up. Early indications are the industry is slowly turning toward recycling its own wastewater, along with highly salty and undrinkable brackish water, to curb the strain of the hydraulic fracturing boom.

Data are hard to come by. But estimates are that in places such as the Eagle Ford and Permian Basin, 10 to 20 percent of the water being used now comes from recycling. And that number is expected to at least double over the next decade, said Marcus Gay, a water analyst at research firm IHS who has since left the company.

Apache Corp., the Houston-based oil company, says it is no longer using fresh water at a 35,000-acre field in the Wolfcamp, one of the region's hottest oil plays. Water there is so scarce that residents in nearby Barnhart saw their town well go dry last year.

Fasken Oil and Ranch, located outside Midland, expects to be completely off fresh water by the end of the year. Spread across 165,000 acres of sand and shrubs, the ranch has seen some of its cattle wells go dry and has been slowly developing its water recycling operation.

Through an elaborate process that involves electrodes, chemical treatments and simple gravity, impurities are removed and what was once wastewater is piped into a holding pond the size of six football fields. Jimmy Davis Jr., who runs the oil and gas operations at Fasken, said it might be more expensive than buying fresh water, but not by much. And the Fasken family, which bought the land in 1913, is worried about how much water is left.

"This family's going to have this land hundreds of more years," he said. "The technology's nothing new. It's the same thing they've been using for years in Africa to clean the drinking water."

The timing is critical.

At the Texas Water Development Board, geologists are watching nervously as the state's aquifers continue to shrink. Oil and gas represents only about 2 percent of the total water use. But because of the boom in hydraulic fracturing, which can use more than 4 million gallons per well, it's a much larger number than it used to be.

And in some sections of the Eagle Ford, dramatic water losses are being reported. In La Salle County south of San Antonio, the local water board reported the aquifer had dropped 70 feet in a single year.

"There's been large water-level declines in that area. A lot of it's due to agriculture, but there's been increased pumping for hydraulic fracturing that has caused a decline in the water levels, too," said Robert Mace, deputy executive administrator at the state water board.

If the drought persists, expectations are that water costs are only going to rise. In one part of New Mexico, water costs tripled last year. And companies are racing to fine-tune the technology to bring recycling costs on par with buying fresh water.

Clane LaCrosse, a 42-year-old former consultant in Fort Worth, started a water recycling operation around 2007 after an oil executive told him how much they were spending on water. For the first five years, business at Bosque Systems was slow at best, but things have quickly turned around, he said.

"They might be at 20 percent recycling right now, but they were at zero two years ago," he said. "Customers are literally coming to us to say, 'Help us out.' "

For now, though, wastewater recycling simply doesn't make economic sense for a lot of companies.

The infrastructure costs, in terms of pipelines and treatment equipment, are considerable.

Bill Mintz, spokesman for Apache, said that the decision to recycle in Barnhart was based on economics but that it does not yet make sense at most of the company's operations in Texas.

"You can't do this everywhere," he said. "Water availability is a very local issue. There are places in the Permian, fresh water is readily available. But in the Barnhart area, fresh water is scarce, so if we could get it, it would be more expensive."