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Recycling frac water: Companies, regulators move forward with new technology

Reuters File Photo An oil derrick is seen at a fracking site for extracting oil outside of Williston in March.

Bakken operators may not be looking to reduce their fracking any time soon, but some are looking at ways to reuse and recycle water used in the process.

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Regulators and energy companies are looking at ways to recycle hydraulic fracturing flowback and produced water, or use systems that can work with higher salinity water, in efforts that could lead to cost savings, environmental benefits and less truck traffic on roads that are dangerously behind the boom.

“It’s moving ahead, but rather slowly and cautiously,” said Lynn Helms, North Dakota’s head oil and gas regulator.

Caution comes from concerns over spill risks — to recycle the water for one frac job, Helms said, “you have to come up with a safe way to transport and store 70,000 to 100,000 barrels of very salty water.”

Bakken operators go through billions of gallons of fresh water annually for fracking.

A proposal from Norwegian operator Statoil is mindful of the spill risk, consisting of tanks inside larger tanks. That way, the outer tank, about 35 feet larger in diameter than the inner tank holding saltwater, would contain a spill if the inner tank failed.

In the company’s application for an exception from the North Dakota Industrial Commission rule outlawing open-top saltwater containers, Statoil lists its goals as reusing produced water in fracking simulation, conserving fresh water, reducing truck traffic and providing safe storage of the produced water.

At a four-well site near Williston, Statoil would process the saltwater with the CleanWave system, a Halliburton-Nuverra collaboration that cleans produced water for reuse.

Halliburton’s H2OForward technology is comprised of CleanWave and another technology that allows operators to reuse produced or flowback water with little treatment.

Beth Kurz with the University of North Dakota’s Energy and Environmental Research Center said the latter is the more relevant development right now for the Bakken, where water is especially salty.

Use of the frac fluid systems that can work with higher-salinity water has picked up in the past year, Kurz said.

“It makes a whole lot of sense to do it that way,” she said.

The systems haven’t been that widely demonstrated in the Bakken, but Kurz said that could change.

“I bet in the near future we’ll see a lot more of that going on.”

Policy looking ahead

Statoil is being watched.

If this application, going before the commission on Monday, is approved, other companies will follow suit, Helms said.

“A lot of other companies will be interested in trying it,” he said.

Even so, Statoil success wouldn’t mean the process would speed up much — each application still needs its own public hearing.

“You’re not gonna see these things popping up all around the Oil Patch,” Helms said.

Helms wouldn’t say what his recommendation to the NDIC will be regarding Statoil’s proposal, but did say the pitch is “much better” than initial proposals.

In September, the NDIC rejected two proposals for storage of recycled frac water because there appeared to be too much environmental risk, he said.

Meanwhile, the commission has been considering rules for recycling facilities. The rules, which have gone through the public hearing and written comment period, will likely go back to the commission in December with changes, Helms said.

Helms said the only comments he’s aware of on the frac water recycling rule were about ensuring a distinction between a regular saltwater disposal operation and an actual treatment facility that recycles.

In the company’s Nov. 7 third-quarter earnings call, Nuverra CEO Mark Johnsrud said he anticipates conducting the first H2OForward frac with Halliburton in the first quarter of 2014.

On water recycling, North Dakota may be behind places like Texas, where droughts make conservation much more crucial.

But the movement, however slowly, signals a turning of the tide.

“We are optimistic that through the advancement of our technologies, market acceptance will grow over time,” Walter Dale, strategic business manager for water solutions at Halliburton, said in a statement. “… it does take time for new technologies to be utilized by the industry.”

Nuverra’s Johnsrud said in his quarterly call that outdated regulations have been a drag on the company’s water recycling efforts.

“Because in the past, it was just — everybody anticipated saltwater was just going to be disposed of in saltwater disposal wells,” he said. “It’s a really fundamental change in how the industry will operate.”