WILLISTON, N.D. – The oil industry used at least 5.4 billion gallons of water in North Dakota in 2012, a record high and at least a 75 percent increase over 2011, according to preliminary figures from the State Water Commission.
About 70 percent of the water was used for hydraulic fracturing, with at least 2 million gallons of water pumped into the ground at each well, said Mike Hove, water resource manager with the State Water Commission.
The State Water Commission has permitted a total of 18.9 billion gallons of water for use by the oil industry, and has millions of more gallons that are being considered for approval, Hove said.
Bob Shaver, a hydrologist with the State Water Commission, said while it may seem like a lot of water, his agency is taking a conservative approach when it comes to approving water permits. Water sources are not being depleted, he said.
“Our management goal is to accommodate as much development as we can on a sustainable basis,” Shaver said. “But we don’t know what that sustainable amount is.”
Because hydrologists need three or more years to know how an aquifer will respond, the commission tries to limit the amount of water drawn from an aquifer at first, Shaver said.
After evaluating the aquifer, more water use may be permitted.
“There are probably more complaints that we’re not getting water fast enough,” Shaver said. “I’ll live with that.”
Trucking the water to well sites is destroying Oil Patch roads, particularly the township roads, said Dan Kalil, Williams County Commission chairman.
Williams County leaders are in preliminary discussions about charging a fee for water to allow the county to hire more people and buy equipment to fix the roads near water depots, Kalil said.
“When you look at all of the acre feet that are permitted and how many truckloads of water are being generated, it’s mind-boggling and we can’t catch up,” Kalil said.
He said it would not be an “onerous” fee, perhaps a few cents a barrel to offset the costs of fixing the roads. The truck traffic from water trucks has prompted thousands of complaints from local residents.
“The phone rings all year round about the water depots and the traffic, the dust and the ruts and the fact that they go rain or shine 24/7,” Kalil said.
The oil industry is just as eager to reduce that water truck traffic, said Monte Besler of Williston, an industry consultant who specializes in hydraulic fracturing.
Companies spend a lot of money to purchase, transport, store and dispose of water, and they’ve been working for 10 years to find a way to reduce the amount of water, said Besler, who worked for Halliburton and Hess Corp. before starting a consultant business called FRACN8R.
“The majority of all companies are moving in that direction, especially the bigger ones that use a lot of water,” Besler said.
While the majority of water used by the oil industry is for fracking, companies also consume water for drilling and other steps of oil development, keeping down dust on roads and providing drinking water to work sites and crew camps, Hove said.
“It isn’t all going down an oil well,” he said.
Some individual frac jobs used 8 million to 11 million gallons of water per well, but the vast majority used between 2 million and 3 million gallons, according to data compiled by Hove.
One of the limitations of recycling frac water in the Bakken is the high salinity of the water that returns to the surface, said Beth Kurz, senior research manager with the Energy and Environmental Research Center at the University of North Dakota.
There is some recycling of water occurring, including companies that are using a blend of freshwater and recycled water, Kurz said. Other companies are working hard to develop a fracking technique that can use high salinity water, she said.
“They are very motivated both economically and environmentally at the same time to do it,” Kurz said.
But Kurz and her colleague, Ed Steadman, deputy associate director for research, said it may be years before the techniques are implemented on a widespread basis in the Bakken.
“There are a lot of companies that are making claims saying they have the latest and greatest technology, but it takes them implementing it in the field before people start buying into it,” Kurz said.
Another challenge with reusing that high salinity water is that companies have to store it on location, Besler said. A tank that leaks freshwater is not big deal, but storing recycled water brings environmental risks, he said.
“It’s not as easy as certainly everybody would love it to be,” Besler said.
As more companies transition to drilling multiple wells on one site, there may be more economic benefits to reusing the water, Besler said.
The amount of water being used by the oil industry may seem like “an inordinate or crazy amount of water,” but it should be considered in the context of other water consumption, Steadman said.
For example, North Dakota used 37.9 billion gallons of water in 2011 for irrigation, a wet year when less irrigation was needed, Hove said.
Typical daily water use of a Midwestern city with 50,000 people is 10 million gallons, Kurz said.
“Really this is not such a high volume use of water for a very important benefit,” Kurz said. “What you get out of that water usage brings a lot of benefits to the state and to the country.”
Last month, state legislators rejected a proposal to charge a tax on water similar to way oil is taxed.
Rep. George Keiser, R-Bismarck, who advocated for the tax, said during the floor debate that he considers water used for fracking to be different than other water uses because it’s disposed of by injecting it into underground formations.
“It will not have a future use,” Keiser said. “That makes it different than every other application of water in our state.”
Williams County monitored the legislative discussion and may begin talking about a fee as soon as this week, Kalil said. The discussions are still preliminary, but one option may be to hire four to six more employees for road maintenance, he said.
“And it might have to be seven days a week,” Kalil said. “It’s not going to be cheap to keep things in better shape than we have been.”
Water usage by oil industry in North Dakota
2012: At least 5.4 billion gallons
2011: 3.1 billion gallons
2010: 1.9 billion gallons