Petroleum has long been used to power vehicles, heat homes, and facilitate travel across the U.S. As climate change becomes a more pressing issue, oil extraction and associated petroleum products have come under scrutiny for the heavy impact on the environment. Of particular concern is the process of fracking, which injects fluid at high pressure into open fissures to extract natural gas and oil. Fracking uses large amounts of water for the injection process, but several innovations in water management and recycling mean to reduce fracking impact on the environment and local waterways.
Oil fracking liquid is a combination of 99.5 percent water, 0.5 percent chemical additives, and sand. The typical amount of fluid needed for the average fracking well tops 200,000 barrels. Several companies have taken steps to reduce the amount of water used at fracking sites, as water management accounts for 10-30 percent of the costs of a fracking operation. Apache Corporation in Dallas, Texas has developed a unique system that recycles brackish and fracking water, reducing its fracking operation’s reliance on the area’s groundwater. As of 2021, 91 percent of water used in fracking operations by Apache Corp. was non-fresh or recycled produced water. That is in addition to a company-wide 2021 goal of using only 20 percent freshwater in all operations. Recycling brackish water will allow companies to cut costs, while also using secondary recovery methods to extract more water to recycle from the oil refining process.
Other companies like Pioneer have built pipelines to carry 150,000 barrels of treated municipal wastewater from Odessa, Texas to use in the fracking process. The deal will net the city of Odessa more than $117 million, while further preserving the environment and local groundwater around Pioneer’s fracking operations. The production of water by these oil companies has also been the subject of innovation. Purifying fracking water entails removing all of the chemical compounds, heavy metals, and other wastes that are in produced water.
A process called Eutectic Freeze Crystallization (EFC) can be used to remove organic compounds from produced water and separate out remaining compounds by forming ice crystals. The process is not energy intensive, does not corrode existing pipeline infrastructure, and can lead to operating savings costs of 80 percent for brine and other produced water. Additional technologies like a prototype laser system to combat salt buildup inside produced water pipelines and sponges that absorb ions that are responsible for the buildup of salt.
Oil fracking has helped make the U.S. a major energy exporter. The environmental impacts from oil and gas fracking have been heaviest in areas where groundwater is present or the climate is already arid. By following better water management practices with innovative technologies, petroleum can become a much cleaner fuel to extract and refine.
Written by Roy Mathews, Former Public Policy Associate
The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.