Connecting the oil and gas industry with the agricultural sector in Wyoming is a lesson in capturing common ground for Marvin Nash. The former rodeo clown, who also worked in cost management for the oil and gas industry, is trying to use the produced water bubbling up from oil field development and to irrigate Wyoming’s dry lands via his company, Encore Green.
Water is crucial to both industries, as well as a challenge. But using water from fossil fuel development for anything other than further oil and gas development remains a tricky subject, Nash said.
His desire to “change the narrative” took a step forward Friday, when Nash announced Encore Green’s partnership with the Center of Excellence in Produced Water Management, a research consortium at the University of Wyoming. The agreement between the company and the school was unveiled at the Wyoming Women in Ag Symposium in Casper.
Energy drives a significant amount of water production in Wyoming. The drilling and hydraulic fracturing process can add traces of contaminants, hydrocarbons and salt that make that water a problem rather than a resource.
A recent report from Duke University showed a 1,440 percent increase in water produced from drilling and fracking wells between 2011 and 2016. The water needed to hydraulically fracture wells had also jumped by 770 percent in some areas of the country. Down in West Texas, the strongest oil and gas play in the country, industry is facing a threshold where the rock can’t take additional wastewater, prompting the Environmental Protection Agency to consider surface release.
Despite the growing challenge of getting rid of increasing volumes of produced water— particularly in arid regions like Wyoming — the primary techniques aren’t great. Companies either put it in evaporation ponds or drill deep wells to inject it back into the rock beneath the surface, introducing those additional contaminants into the groundwater.
Water picks up the attributes of its environment, Savannah Bachman, a UW grad student working for the Center of Excellence, told the room of women in Casper. It becomes unique to its location, taking on everything from hydrocarbons to rare earth minerals. When reused in the oilfields, produced water’s contaminants become more concentrated.
But, there’s a better way to manage this than disposal, she said.
“We need water,” she said. “We can’t just treat it as waste.”
Some of the research Bachman is involved in includes the use of membranes to sift out valuable minerals and metals as well as the traditional treatments that remove oil or salt. Approaching produced water in this way conserves a resource and creates value from the removed resources, she said.
Nash said his primary customers don’t come from the oil and gas sector. Industry will be on board if the price is right, he said, noting that an unnamed midstream operation is on board for Encore Green’s pilot project. It’s agriculture that will have to learn about what produced water treatment can offer.
Wyoming has been burned before by using oil and gas wastewater for other purposes. Coal-bed methane water was released onto the surface with damaging results in the northern Powder River Basin. But the problem wasn’t that the water was bad, but that the science that links the right water, in the right amounts with the right ground, was off, Nash said.
Encore Green is approaching produced water from the agricultural side, with an understanding of soils and what grows in them, Nash said.
The best managers are the people who know the land, he added.
“We were leaving (it) up to industry,” said Nash. “They can do it, but it’s not their expertise.”