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Moving towards a national produced water reuse plan

A recent workshop highlighted the hard work that has gone into making produced water reuse feasible outside the oil & gas industry and emphasized areas requiring greater efforts.

The Groundwater Protection Council’s Produced Water Task Force and the New Mexico Produced Water Research Consortium (NMPWRC) held a virtual workshop earlier this month, with representatives from several entities discussing efforts that have so far been made to promote reuse and how to achieve further progress. A number of important topics were addressed, including different state-level approaches, the need for more research and the criticality of multi-stakeholder collaboration.

Many western states are experiencing significant water stress, a situation which is expected to persist – if not worsen – in the future. The 876 billion gallons of produced water generated across the US each year could help augment available water supplies.

“If we can treat [produced water] to a level where we can use it in an industrial process or in an [agricultural] setting, then we could free up freshwater that’s easier to treat to potable standards,” Shellie Chard, the Water Quality Division director for the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality explained.


Map of US water stress

States are already laying the foundations for produced water reuse outside the oil & gas industry. In New Mexico, where the boom of Permian Basin activity has resulted in 54.6 billion gallons of produced water each year – up from less than 35 billion gallons in 2016 – the NMPWRC was recently established to research produced water characteristics and treatment technologies. The findings will allow the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) to develop regulations for beneficial reuse.

“The department is [not] moving towards a permissive use of treated produced water outside of the oil & gas industry in calendar year 2020 […] and as science dictates, that’s when we’ll develop rules for discharge handling,” NMED Secretary James Kenney told the workshop audience.

Wyoming, which generates about 76 billion gallons of produced water annually, is also taking a research-based approach. The University of Wyoming’s Center of Excellence in Produced Water Management (CEPWM) has formed partnerships with industry players and regulators to tackle the produced water challenge.

“In addition to just looking at the water itself as an opportunity, there’s a lot of pressure [from] our state regulators to try and devise ways to take advantage of the various commodities that are contained in that produced water,” CEPWM director and research lead Jonathan Brant said. He added that extracting valuable materials could be an innovative way of offsetting the cost of produced water treatment, which is key to the wider adoption of reuse practices.

Legislators and regulators in Oklahoma have also taken steps to ensure the state can benefit from its vast produced water volumes. In May 2020, the state’s Oil & Gas Produced Water and Waste Recycling and Reuse Act was signed into law, clarifying ownership and responsibility over produced water during different activities – similar to what New Mexico’s Produced Water Act did in 2019. Chard noted Oklahoma has also included produced water volumes in a comprehensive state water plan.

Considering long-term water supply and demand scenarios is essential to formulating a successful plan for produced water reuse. The ability to ensure that produced water can be economically treated and reused where needs are greatest will require improvements in data gathering, something which several states aim to address in the near future. For example, New Mexico already tracks produced water volumes, but seeks to require the disclosure of chemical constituents in produced water intended for beneficial reuse.

“There’s a significant need for data acquisition and data management across the country,” Utah Division of Oil, Gas, and Mining director John Baza said. He explained that more and better data tracking is required to properly assess water needs and potential produced water uses across different geographies.

To view all the workshop presentations and learn more about the efforts being made by various entities towards produced water treatment and reuse, visit the Groundwater Protection Council’s website here.

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