Water key to ND oil patch growthBISMARCK (AP) — The growth of North Dakota’s oil patch is bringing heavy demands for water, and state and industry officials are waiting anxiously for federal permission to tap the Missouri River or risk hitting a ceiling for how much oil they can produce.
BISMARCK (AP) — The growth of North Dakota’s oil patch is bringing heavy demands for water, and state and industry officials are waiting anxiously for federal permission to tap the Missouri River or risk hitting a ceiling for how much oil they can produce.
Lynn Helms, director of the state Department of Mineral Resources, said drilling activity is at record levels, with an estimated 2,000 wells to come on line this year. The industry is slowed at present by the lack of crews to perform hydraulic fracturing, a process that uses pressurized fluid and sand to break open oil-bearing rock 2 miles underground.
A record 1,213 new wells were drilled in North Dakota last year, “pretty much maxing out our available water resources,” Helms said.
“We have a rapidly growing inventory of crews who are needed in place and fracking,” Helms said. “Our next barrier will be water.”
About 7 million gallons of water are available daily at present to the oil industry in western North Dakota, from about 3,500 ground water sources, said Bob Shaver, the state Water Commission’s water appropriation director.
To keep pace with oil production, state and oil industry officials want to draw water from Lake Sakakawea, the largest of the six reservoirs on the Missouri River. The lake water would nearly quadruple the amount available daily for the oil industry, Shaver said.
“It would take all the heat off our aquifers,” he said.
But the Army Corps of Engineers wants to charge water users for surplus water drawn from the big lake, a proposal that is being challenged by state officials. Corps spokesman Larry Janis said the agency is reviewing public comments on the plan and could have a decision by May.
Helms said without water from Lake Sakakawea, oil companies will have to move water by truck from locations beyond western North Dakota, including other states.
“They will get the water, even if they have to drive to Montana to get it,” Helms said. Using Missouri river water “will mean a huge decrease in truck traffic and will benefit air quality and roads.”
While fresh water needed to support oil drilling is in short supply, North Dakota is awash with wastewater — millions of barrels that must be sequestered underground forever.
A record 113 million barrels of crude was produced last year in the state along with 180 million barrels of contaminated water. The same porous rock that holds oil also contains saltwater, which comes to the surface with oil and gas.
Helms said 132 million barrels of briny so-called produced water was recovered and reinjected in underground reservoirs last year. An additional 48 million barrels of “frack water” also was pumped, about 20 percent of which was recycled and reused.
Federal and state regulators don’t require companies to disclose the ingredients of frack water.
The number of disposal wells is growing at a rate of about one a week to bury the massive amounts of wastewater, either by drilling new wells or using older, unproductive oil wells, Helms said. North Dakota has more than 300 such wells at present, he said.
Desalinating briny water from oil wells and reusing it for drilling operations is “theoretically possible but not cost-effective,” Helms said.
Wayde Schafer, a North Dakota spokesman for the Sierra Club, said taking water from the Missouri River and ultimately injecting it underground indefinitely would cause pollution and a natural imbalance.
“They would be taking millions of gallons of water out of the cycle, sticking a lot of pollution in it and dumping it underground,” Schafer said. “That’s got to have an impact.”
“In western North Dakota, water is not an unlimited resource,” he said.
Shaver, of the Water Commission, said the amount that would be siphoned from Lake Sakakawea for oilfield use would be immeasurable when compared to the overall flow of the Missouri River.
State geologist Ed Murphy said the oilfield wastewater is held in reservoirs within the Inyan Kara, or “Dakota” formation about a mile beneath the surface. The formation is below any fresh water aquifers and is sealed by impermeable rock, he said.
The formation has been used since the 1950s for wastewater disposal without any problems, he said.