Oil Wells & Water: The Demand Rises

As oil development continues to both enrich and challenge the state of North Dakota, providing access to water for both domestic and industrial use has become one of the most urgent issues that commands the attention of private enterprise as well as government entities. “The main challenge is just the water supply in general,” explains Tami Norgard, an attorney who specializes in water development issues at Vogel Law Firm. “Where do you get it and how do you deliver it?”

Enormous demands are placed on the supply by the oil industry, according to Clay Terry, strategic business manager of water solutions for Halliburton. “The single largest consideration is the operator’s need for fairly large volumes of water for drilling and at completion of the wells,” he says. Developers extract the oil through hydraulic fracturing which uses water pressure to create fractures in rock as deep as two miles below the surface, thus allowing the oil and natural gas contained in the rock to escape and flow out of a well. Using this process requires around four barrels of water to develop each barrel of oil in the Bakken shale reserve. Millions of gallons of water are trucked on North Dakota roads everyday to service the drilling and maintenance of the state’s hundreds of wells. It’s expected that within the next several decades around 50,000 wells will be sprinkled across the North Dakota landscape, with billions of gallons of water annually required to service them.

Domestic Use

Although the oil wells gobble up the lion’s share of water, pressure on the supply also comes from a population that’s growing by leaps and bounds, says Cory Chorne, project manager at AE2S who also serves as a project manager for the Western Area Water Supply Project (WAWSP). “The biggest challenge is the number of people that have migrated to the state to work in the oil industry,” he says. “It became apparent very early that [the water supply] wouldn’t be adequate just for domestic needs.”

Just providing basic services, such as housing and water, for the growing workforce has stretched available resources to the maximum in many rural communities. “Some systems now have a shortage of domestic supply,” Norgard says.

Over the years, water needs have been met through a combination of public and private entities who have obtained permits to extract water from a variety of sources and who then sell it for both industrial and domestic uses. Growth that has exceeded even the most optimistic speculation has caused many community movers and shakers to rethink the entire water issue. Acknowledging that larger, more dependable sources of water were needed right away, community leaders have been creative in recent years in considering a variety of viable solutions. “We looked at long-term water needs,” Chorne says. “We adapted to the situation as we found it. There was no template for it.”

Western Area Water Supply Project

Creative thinking resulted in a marriage of convenience between public and private interests, uniting the City of Williston, the McKenzie County Water Resource District, the Williams Rural Water District, the R&T Water Supply Association and the DBW Rural Water District to form the WAWSP. Established by House Bill 1206 in the state legislature in 2011, the project was also funded with $110 million for the 2011-2013 biennium. When complete in 2014, the project will consist of hundreds of miles of underground pipelines, reservoirs and pump stations which will utilize water extracted from the Missouri River to service communities in McKenzie, Williams, Divide, Burke and Mountrail counties. “It was a complex process to include state and county interests,” Chorne says. What is most unique about WAWSP, however, is its sale of excess water to oil companies for industrial use, the proceeds of which will then be used to pay off construction loans for the system. “It’s legally remarkable since they agreed to be selfless,” Norgard says. “It was very forward thinking, going to the legislature.” To many people, the project appears to be a win-win with private business paying for the bulk of the infrastructure cost.

WAWSP is also unique because it was able to hit the ground running almost immediately. “It’s a very accelerated time schedule,” explains Denton Zubke, chairman of the Western Area Water Supply Authority (WAWSA), which manages the project. Typically, water projects even much smaller than WAWSP can take months to wend their way through legal and permitting processes. WAWSP appears to be adhering to its schedule with three industrial depots already bringing in revenue and five more operational by the end of the year. People living in Ray, Tioga, Stanley, Ross, Wildrose, Crosby, Columbus, Fortuna, Ambrose and Watford City are scheduled to receive service from the project also by the end of 2012.

Private Water Companies

Despite the kudos already given to WAWSP, however, some opposition to the public-private partnership exists. “There are factions that hope to keep their business going,” explains Dennis Fewless, director of the water quality division of the North Dakota Department of Health. The most vocal group is the Independent Water Providers (IWP), which grew from one privately owned industrial water depot some years ago to 73 depots by last year. Concerned about competition from government supported water suppliers, IWP informed the North Dakota Legislative Council last year that “70-80 percent of the oil industries’ water needs were provided by the private sector in 2011.” In an effort to address concerns from IWP, some industrial water depots were removed from WAWSP where direct competition would exist. The conflict with litigation will likely continue in the future. “There’s concern that independent water suppliers are selling water they get for free,” Norgard says. “This rubs a lot of people the wrong way. Water is a state resource.”

Also contentious are continuing disagreements with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regarding rights to tap water from Lake Sakakawea as well as the Missouri River. Temporary, no-cost permits for surplus water are sometimes available, but the federal government says they are in the process of developing a national surplus water policy which will affect the area in the near future. There is also opposition to any excise taxes on the water.

Potential Contamination

While suppliers wrestle with obtaining and delivering water, oversight and regulatory entities deal with the potential for contamination. “When requirements are followed it doesn’t threaten water quality,” Fewless says. “However, there are always mechanical failures. We had an incident in Killdeer that’s still under investigation, but that’s the only well we can point to out of thousands that are drilled.” A more frequent problem faced by his office is the need to respond to oil and salt water spills from trucks, pipelines and trains. The number of reported spills has doubled from 729 in 2010 to an expected 1,500 in 2012. That may not seem as bad as it sounds, however. “Seventy-five percent are fewer than ten barrels and only around 200 have needed oversight cleanup,” he says. Fewless emphasizes the importance of constant vigilance which also includes monitoring the disposal of domestic waste water. “We want to eliminate illegal dumping of waste,” he says.

As a major presence in North Dakota since 1984, Halliburton is playing a leading role in water management issues. Its CleanWave service enables recycling of flow back and produced water at the well site by employing a mobile electrocoagulation component that uses electricity to treat the water. The treatment allows operators to generate water for reuse in fracturing or other production processes thus decreasing fresh water consumption. “The single most important thing is to continue to advance this practice, to use produced water in lieu of fresh water,” Terry emphasizes. Halliburton also offers its CleanStream process, which helps control bacteria growth through the use of ultraviolet light, as well as a CleanStim hydraulic fracturing fluid system that enhances environmental performance.

Because of the complexity and the critical nature of water useage in North Dakota, managing this valuable resource will continue to be a major issue for years to come. “Water is a big factor here,” Norgard says. On the plus side, it seems that those who deal with it on a day-to-day basis have shown creativity and the capacity to learn as events unfold. “It’s an evolving business and we’re seeing a light at the end of the tunnel,” Fewless explains. “We’re making progress, but we still have challenges.”

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