BISMARCK – An oilfield service company says it can recycle Bakken drilling waste while protecting the environment, turning waste that would otherwise go to a landfill into material for roads or other uses.
Nuverra Environmental Solutions is one of three companies that will launch a pilot project approved by the North Dakota Department of Health to recycle solid drilling waste.
“We want to make sure that this program is good for the landowner, it’s good for the operator and good for the environment,” said CEO Mark Johnsrud, who announced the new initiative Monday from the state Capitol.
Every Bakken well produces an estimated 26 semi-truck loads of waste known as drill cuttings that need to be mixed with a stabilizing material such as fly ash and disposed of, the Department of Mineral Resources has said.
Nearly 2.5 million tons of oilfield waste went to special waste landfills in North Dakota last year, and that accounted for about 20 to 25 percent of the total drilling waste, said Scott Radig with the North Dakota Department of Health. A majority of drilling waste is buried in cuttings pits on drilling locations.
“If you go talk to a lot of farmers, they don’t want these pits on their land anymore,” Johnsrud said. “The possibility of having something bad happen is out there.”
Nuverra, which has invested more than three years and $30 million into this initiative, says its process called Terrafficient can recycle 100 percent of that waste, according to Johnsrud.
Companies in other states successfully recycle drilling waste, but the high salt content in Bakken drill cuttings has made it more challenging to develop a process that protects the environment.
“The biggest concern is really the salt that’s in the drilling waste and the potential for it to impact plants and groundwater,” said Radig, director of the Division of Waste Management.
The health department has approved Nuverra and two other companies to move forward with two-year projects to test the technology and develop regulations for recycling drilling waste. Three other proposals are still being reviewed, Radig said.
“Potentially, it could be a real benefit, both to counties that are looking for scarce materials to make roads, or as an alternative to piling up a bunch of waste in a landfill,” Radig said.
Nuverra is working with the Energy and Environmental Research Center at the University of North Dakota to test to the technology before trying it in the field in the Watford City area.
Nuverra proposes to reuse the drilling waste in three ways: mix it with gravel so the gravel will compact better and not wash off the roads; reuse it as a road base material; and use it within municipal landfills as daily cover material, Radig said.
The testing will include using the recycled material to construct a road within Nuverra’s own landfill facility near Arnegard, Radig said. A gravel road in central McKenzie County that is still being selected will be used to test mixing the recycled material with gravel, Radig said.
Additional applications, including deicing roads and use as bedding for pipeline construction, are also being studied but won’t be part of the pilot project, said John Harju, EERC associate director of research.
The experiments are not without critics.
Wayde Schafer with the Dacotah chapter of the Sierra Club testified at the Legislature against recycling drill cuttings for road material, which he argued does not meet the definition of a beneficial use. He also raised concerns about how well it will be monitored and the potential for environmental impacts.
“High levels of salt in oilfield waste is toxic for our land which is already experiencing impacts from brine spills, releases and accidents,” Schafer said.
Dennis Fewless, who recently retired from the health department as director of Division of Water Quality, will return to the department part-time to oversee the project. Fewless will work with the companies to set up testing procedures and verify the treatment will have no environmental impacts.
“It is an important project and we wanted somebody to be able to dedicate some time to it,” Radig said.
Symmetry Oilfield Solutions of Colorado and Renewable Resources LLC of Killdeer also are approved by the health department to do test projects. Those companies do not plan to work with the EERC, but they will be required to work with a certified lab, Radig said.
“Each company kind of has their own unique ideas and ways that they think that they can work with this material beneficially,” Radig said.
State leaders, including Gov. Jack Dalrymple, joined Johnsrud in making the announcement at the Capitol on Monday. Legislators approved a bill last session, House Bill 1390, which paved the way for the pilot projects.
Tons of oilfield waste disposed of in North Dakota*
2014: 2.5 million
2013: 1.8 million
2012: 1.1 million
2011: 0.5 million
Source: North Dakota Department of Health
Figures represent oilfield waste, primarily drilling waste, disposed of in special waste landfills permitted by the North Dakota Department of Health. It does not include drilling waste buried on drilling locations, which is how a majority of the waste gets disposed of. Figures for 2015 are expected to be lower due to the drop in drilling.