Oil And Gas Wastewater Presents A Business Opportunity For One Colorado Company
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."
Inside Energy is a public media collaboration, based in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota, focusing on the energy industry and its impacts.