What will be different this time? #Fracking and wastewater in Elko

Photo credit Jim Bleche. Nobel Energy Fracking rig in Colorado

  • Larry Hyslop/Elko Free Press Correspondent

Part 2 Cross-posted from the Elko Free Press for educational purposes

This column is the second in a series looking for answers to the question: what is going to be different this time around? What will prevent Elko County from facing the many problems faced by so many other states where hydraulic fracturing (fracking) is being used for oil and natural gas exploration and production? What combination of natural conditions, Noble Energy (Noble) and state/ federal oversight is going to make fracking a good experience for Elko County residents? These columns are not an endorsement of fracking and they focus on Noble although other oil companies may come into the county.

The liquid used in fracking a well is 98 to 99 percent water and sand. About a dozen chemicals are typically added to that, some of which are toxic, to ensure fracture stimulation. Each well uses a slightly different chemical mix but they all usually include acids, clay controls, friction reducers, scale inhibitors, iron controls, biocides and gellants.

Anyone can view the list of chemicals used in each fracking job at fracfocus.org. Under the new state regulations, Noble lists the chemicals within 60 days of each well completion. Go to fracfocus.org, click on Find a Well, select Nevada and Elko County. Wells are listed by an API number, but the correct well can be found using the provided well’s latitude and longitude along with a map.

After fracking, fluids flow back up the pipe. This “flowback” must then be disposed of, treated, recycled or re-used. During oil well production, water from the rock formation also comes up with the oil, called produced water. This and the oil itself must be dealt with safely. Chandler Newhall is Noble’s Rockies business unit asset manager. He said Noble will always contain produced water and flowback in steel tanks or pipes, they will not use lined pits.

For the first two wells, this flowback and produced water was shipped to a licensed facility in Eastern Utah for treatment. If Noble enters a production phase, they will develop a water management program to include treatment, recycling and reuse. In a grouping of future oil wells, produced water could be piped to a central location to be treated and piped back out to be used in fracking other wells. Noble will not use evaporation ponds for disposal. “When the company has to dispose of any water, we will obtain the appropriate regulatory permits and use only state-approved commercial disposal facilities or permitted underground injection,” explained Chandler. The Nevada Division of Environmental Protection would issue a permit for any proposed re-injection well.

Re-injection of wastewater has been a problem in other areas, where this process has caused a series of small earthquakes. Many re-injection wells have not caused these problems. It appears this concern can be reduced through control of the amount of water injected per day and the pumping pressure. NDEP regulations do not address any potential seismic issues.

In some areas, radioactive minerals have returned in the produced water. This has not been seen in Nevada. If it does happen, a special permit must be obtained and the radioactive sludge disposed of properly. Very little, if any, natural gas is expected so flaring is unlikely. In North Dakota, such flares light the night skies. Actually, Noble hopes to find a little natural gas to use for powering well site generators.

Spills of produced water and oil are always concerns. Chandler says Noble has strict guidelines for the companies they hire. Emergency response plans will be in place for spills, along with spill prevention programs. If spilled, produced water could seep into the ground, and further actions will be taken to remove the contaminated water and even the contaminated soil. NDEP would become involved in any spills.

This is so early in the exploration process, it is hard to know the future of oil production in Elko County. Only the first well is producing oil in a long-term production test to understand the potential production. Noble’s success scenario would be to produce 50,000 barrels of oil per day at peak production. Chandler says this will be different from the Bakken Oil Field in North Dakota where they produce 900,000 barrels of oil per day. Nevada is currently producing 900 barrels per day.

The initial wells will be vertical wells, to study the subsurface geology and test various zones for oil production. Noble may use horizontal wells in the future, which will use more water and create much more wastewater.

“Horizontal wells minimize the surface impact while recovering more of the resource potential. This would enable us to replace many vertical wells with one horizontal well,” said Chandler.

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