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Water demand in Oil Patch tapers

Trucks line up in August 2012 at a water depot in western North Dakota, where supplying the fluid essential for fracking petroleum deposits has become an industry with yearly sales estimated to be between $45 million and $120 million.

FARGO -- The volume of water used to produce oil in the booming Bakken Formation appears to have plateaued after more than four years of rapid growth, a state analysis shows.

Water demand in the Oil Patch might have peaked last fall, culminating six or eight months of relative stability, and indications suggest the trend is continuing, according to an analyst for the North Dakota State Water Commission.

Last year, industrial water use in western North Dakota totaled 16,991 acre-feet of water, or 5.5 billion gallons.

So far this year, industrial water consumption appears similar, the result of efficiency gains and water conservation technologies, said Michael Hove, the state's senior water resource manager.

"It would appear that things haven't changed that much," he said, a conclusion based on spot checks of industrial water depot meters and monthly reports of water use.

Water remains in high demand in the Oil Patch for a process called hydraulic fracturing, commonly called "fracking," which is required to bring oil from deep underground.

After a well is drilled, crews inject a mix of water, chemicals and solids under pressure to create fissures in shale formations to free the oil and gas.

A spokeswoman for the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources agreed that technologies are enabling oil production crews to recycle more water, but said other trends mean water demand will remain high.

"Water figures that have stabilized just represent water used for hydraulic fracturing," said Alison Ritter, the department's public information officer.

"There will be a growing need for water used to maintain Bakken wells," she said. "As more wells are drilled and continue to age, there will be a shift in demand for maintenance water."

As oil production has soared in the Bakken in recent years, so has water demand.

Between 2011 and 2012, for example, industrial water use in western North Dakota jumped 75 percent. That spike was a continuation of an upward trend that began in 2008.

Several developments explain the tapering demand for water used in hydro-fracking.

Because of costs for hauling and disposing of "frack" and well water, oil companies have a strong financial incentive to conserve water, Hove said.

Raw water costs 65 cents to 85 cents per barrel, he said. But once trucking costs are added, the cost of delivered water ranges from $3.50 to $4 per barrel.

Wastewater -- including contaminated "frack" water and the highly salty water that comes up with the oil -- must be disposed of deep underground.

"The cost for disposing water can be $1 or $2 per barrel, and that doesn't include transportation costs," Hove said.

"There's huge economic incentives" to conserve and innovate, he added. "The transportation costs represent the biggest piece to those companies."

A study found that more than a third of the 1,200 truckloads required on average to drill a Bakken well, 450, were filled with water.

Environmental service companies in the oilfield are delivering new technologies that allow some water to be recycled, and the application of those methods is becoming more widespread over time.

Crews are also becoming more efficient at fracking wells, so less water is used per well. A few years ago, the average was 3 million gallons. The average has declined to 2.2 million gallons.

However, Hove said, a more water-intensive method of fracking appears to be catching on, which could bring the average back up, underscoring the difficulty of making predictions.

The almost 17,000 acre-feet of water used last year by the oil industry is a fraction of the 195,000 acre-feet used by farmers to irrigate fields statewide, according to state figures.

However, water used to frack a well becomes contaminated and ultimately must be disposed of deep underground, essentially removing it from future use for a very long time.

The seven coal-fired power plants located near the shores of Lake Sakakawea on the Missouri River use 1 million acre-feet of water per year to cool the plants and generate steam, Hove said.

But after power plants use the water, it is cooled and returned to the river.

The 17,000 acre-feet of water used last year by the oil industry compares to the 5,700 to 12,425 acre-feet used per year by the city of Fargo over the past decade, according to state figures.