What Is Produced Water in Hydraulic Fracturing and How to Reduce Water Usage

what is produced water in fracking?

The Shale oil boom of 2009 caused an upturn of events on the global energy scene. The United States went from a premier importer of global oil and gas to a major producer. This was made possible using a combination of horizontal drilling and the breakthrough technology known as hydraulic fracturing.

Hydraulic fracturing represents the new wave of innovation-driven, advanced procedures for producing hydrocarbons from hard-to-reach sources. It involves injecting fluid at a high pressure into shale or other tight-rock formations to break up subsurface fissures, thereby stimulating hydrocarbon production.

Hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling have made it possible for oil and gas to be obtained from the low-permeability, deviated formations of North America and Canada.

However, unconventional production is not without its unique challenges. A major problem many operators in the region are facing is managing the vast volumes of produced water and water consumption for the fracking process itself.

What Is Produced Water in Fracking?

Produced water (also known as ‘flowback water’) is water obtained as a by-product of oil and gas from completed wells after fracking. It’s typically a mix of completion and formation fluids, gases, and dissolved particles. Unfortunately, water production is a constant feature throughout the life cycle of completed wells.

Produced water from the fracking process is highly salty and toxic – neither suitable for human consumption nor survival of the ecosystem. Therefore, it must be recycled or disposed of safely. This necessitates a critical sub-industry for oil and gas production – the wastewater disposal/treatment industry.

Where Does Produced Water Come From?

In underground formations, a percentage of the pore volume is made up of water. This volume of water is called the water saturation, or water cut. Thus, when a formation is fractured, water is produced alongside hydrocarbons.

Data from IHS Markit indicates that water cuts in the Permian basin could be anywhere from 30 – 90% saturation, and about 30% in Eagle Ford.

Water Use in Oil and Gas Industry

According to a Duke University study, water use for hydraulic fracturing  purposes has skyrocketed up to 770% since 2011. For the period between 2009 and 2014, there was a surge in water consumption due to the proliferation of hydraulically fractured wells across the country as $100/Bbl (per barrel) oil made Western Texas Intermediate (WTI) production economically viable. Experts posit that water usage will continue to increase in the coming years.

Sourcewater estimates that to produce 1 barrel of oil in the major U.S. plays using fracking procedures, 10 barrels of water is required. Large operators gulp trillions of barrels of water over the production phase of their wells.

Fracking Water Consumption

Hydraulic fracturing is required to unlock oil and gas from unconventional reservoirs such as shale. During hydraulic fracturing operations , a composite or dissolvable frac plug is inserted into the wellbore at a precise depth to provide zonal isolation between sections of the well before the frac fluids are pumped in. This plug is also responsible for diverting the frac fluids into the formation.

fracking water use in oil and gas industry

With current hydraulic fracturing  procedures, millions of gallons of water are required to set this plug into the well. Added to the volume of water produced from the formation alongside oil and gas, it becomes a huge challenge for operators to manage all that water. Data from the USGS indicates that some major basins in the country produce around 15 – 20 million barrels of water per day.

Produced Water Management

In the past, operators used to dispose of their produced water in large evaporation ponds. However, this is unacceptable to environmental authorities as produced water is considered industrial waste.

Produced Water Treatment

Sometimes, it’s cheaper for operators to treat their produced water and recirculate it into the well for reuse. Common treatment techniques include filtration, flotation, and cyclonic separation. Wastewater treatment in the U.S. is subject to regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Produced Water Disposal

Operators may decide to hire water hauling companies to transport their wastewater to suitable locations for disposal. The wastewater is usually injected back into underground formations, far beneath the drinking water table to prevent contamination.

Cost Implications of Water Management for the Oil and Gas Industry

The most important aspect of water management is cost. Both water treatment (reuse) and haulage/disposal are expensive third-party services that take a huge chunk out of production revenues. Logistics costs involve hiring third-party companies to transport the wastewater to treatment or disposal locations, sometimes over several miles.

How to Reduce Water Consumption in Industry?

One solution for reducing water consumption during the hydraulic fracturing  process is designing downhole completion tools and equipment with water-saving features. Gryphon Oilfield Services is at the forefront of innovation in this regard.

Gryphon is an industry-leading oilfield service company providing cutting-edge well completions tools, casing equipment, and remedial solutions with keen expertise in both conventional and unconventional down-hole technologies.

Gryphon’s Trident Series of composite frac plugs are designed to minimize hydraulic fracturing water usage with a feature known as ‘running a frac ball on seat.’ This technology reduces the volume of water required to set the frac plugs to the desired depth.

Contact us today for more information about our downhole completion tools for Oil and Gas.


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