Operational logistics of on-site water treatment for hydraulic fracturing
Almost every driller engaged in hydraulic fracturing is highly concerned with a particular element of operation: water management. Ecologix Environmental Systems, conducted a survey where it questioned oil and gas professionals about what element of the energy industry they felt was most in need of regulation and 85 percent of the answers indicated some aspect of water management.
In a rare instance of agreement between industry, regulatory, and environmental leaders, water issues top virtually everybody’s list of what aspect of fracking is in most dire need of attention. While the industry is exploring water management solutions from a business perspective, environmentalists are demanding them at the grassroots level and legislative bodies are debating them on congressional floors.
It all boils down to action needed on the part of drillers in how they deal with wastewater if they want to compete in the long-term. Gone, or at least approaching an end, are the days when operators could simply withdraw freshwater, use it for fracking, and then throw it away into disposal wells. This methodology is expensive, time consuming and environmentally irresponsible. As such, it is being rejected by the public and lawmakers alike.
Instead, water should be treated on-site, the benefits of which are proven and clear. Drillers who treat and reuse water see improved productivity of their wells while reducing water acquisition, disposal and transportation expenses. While achieving improved profit margins and sustainability from a business standpoint, water treatment also minimizes environmental impact and guarantees compliance with regulatory requirements, both present and future.
More and more, frac operators are beginning to fully understand the efficiency and risk-minimizing benefits of on-site water treatment. What seems to be taking a bit longer for drillers to wrap their heads around are the logistics of how to implement proper water management solutions. This is a new technology – or to be completely accurate, a new application of an existing technology – so there are naturally questions about exactly how it works for the end-users.
In reality, implementation of on-site wastewater treatment is a fairly simple and straightforward process. Ecologix, as an example, offers a system called the Integrated Treatment System (ITS) that is comprised of just three units. The first two are custom-built on frac tank chassis, identical to the tanks commonly seen around well pads. The third unit is a simple race trailer, no different from the ubiquitous models seen all over the world. Nothing about the ITS equipment feels out of place in and around a normal well pad.
To complete the full treatment system, three chemical holding tanks are also required. These are generally 6,000-gallon flat bottom tanks that are commonly used in a variety of applications involving liquid components and are procured through local sources. As far as the required footprint goes, these tanks complete the entire solution. So long as there is enough room on site for two frac tanks, one race trailer, and three 6,000-gallon holding tanks, a full mobile water treatment system can be set-up and operated quickly and easily.
In fact, water treatment operations can commence on the very same day the equipment arrives. As you probably imagine, this is given that everything is planned in advance properly. One of the first steps in water treatment with the ITS involves chemistry, so a great deal of time is saved with full knowledge of the composition of the water to be treated since different compositions require varying chemical reactions to achieve desired results. Typically the data we try to understand beforehand includes solids loading, oil and grease concentration, and any number of metals that must be removed from the water.
Of course, it is quite difficult to enter any situation with perfect information because of complications in obtaining samples. Some elements can settle and change during shipment, and even when a sample is evaluated completely successfully, composition of the pre-treated water on-site can change as flowback from different wells, or even the same well at different depths, enter the cycle.
It is still vital to be armed with as much information as possible prior to deployment of a treatment system because slight variations are easier to correct in the field than starting from a place of no knowledge. Small adjustments can generally be addressed quickly, but significant changes resulting from limited or inaccurate information can result in delays if a great deal of testing is required on-site and materials have to be procured in order to achieve the desired outcomes.
It is important to understand that the vast majority of logistical concerns are not within the scope of what drillers would typically address. Deciphering wastewater characteristics and designing chemical treatment programs to facilitate contaminant separation are outside the scope of most frac operators. For this reason, drillers should be wary of any system marketed as a turn-key solution that can be rented and deployed with no support staff; they will either quickly find themselves over their heads or realize important aspects of treatment are not part of the implemented solution.
Proper water treatment requires complex chemistry to separate solids, colloids and emulsified oils from water. Solutions that do not involve this chemistry and rely solely on oxidation or other similar methods leave these solids, colloids and oils behind, making the treated water mostly clear, but not truly clean, and less suitable for reuse. The fact is, there is no turn-key system that can effectively treat all flowback wastewaters “out of the box.” Flowback water chemistries are simply too varied and complex to not require some degree of customization for effective treatment.
Ecologix provides a full-time staff consisting of a site supervisor, chemical operator and controls technician to every project, ensuring the system gets up and running quickly and stays that way. This team of experts addresses all the logistical concerns of water treatment internally so the only action required by the driller is to provide space to set up the equipment and a water sample – or the results of a comprehensive water test – a week or two prior to deployment.
On-site wastewater treatment does not come with any major logistical concerns for drillers when implemented correctly by a partner firm dedicated to optimal results. On the contrary, deployment is actually very straightforward and almost all the potential hurdles are addressed by water treatment staff at a level invisible to the drilling operators. To put it simply, if a company gives a partner film some space and a water sample, they can treat water without causing disruption to existing site operations.
The productivity and environmental benefits of wastewater treatment combined with the absence of logistical headaches associated with it truly make implementing a treatment solution as part of a comprehensive water management plan a no-brainer. In one painless swoop, water concerns can all but be eliminated at a cost almost always lower than the increased revenue realized by reusing treated water in current and future wells.