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Produced Water: The Silent Spill

For those outside of the oil and gas industry, oil spills have a reputation for being the most environmentally hazardous consequence, understandably so. There have been several high-profile oil spills that have occurred in recent history to devastating effect, however we feel there is a higher risk aspect of the oil and gas industry that appears to go unnoticed by the general public. Depending on topography, soil characteristics, and relative proximity to water, the compounding effects of spilled produced water can pose massive and detrimental impacts to the surroundings, often going well beyond the parameter of the spill.

Produced water is one of the many byproducts associated with the extraction of crude oil. There are many things that will come out of the ground alongside oil, produced water being just one of them. This ‘brine’ is present in almost all oil and gas extractions and constitutes the largest singular volume of material coming out of oil and gas wells, exceeding the volume of oil and/or gas itself over a well’s lifetime. For perspective, in the United States alone, over 4 billion barrels of crude oil are produced each year, alongside approximately 21 billion barrels of produced water. Because this water has been in contact with hydrocarbon-bearing formations for thousands of years, it can contain any number of concerning components including, but not limited to, residual oil and grease, radioactive materials, heavy metals, and salt contents up to 10 times higher than seawater.

While prevention is key, spills are an inevitable occurrence. A recent study of more than 30,000 wells in North Dakota, Colorado, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania found that, on average, 55 reported spills for every 1000 wells occurred every year. Of those spills, produced water is the most commonly discharged liquid. Across the United States, hundreds of miles of pipeline move produced water. Because of its inherently corrosive nature, the infrastructure required to store and transport produced water requires much more maintenance and upkeep than tanks or pipelines holding or moving oil. The materials used in pipelines and storage tanks degrade much faster when holding produce water. That, coupled with the fact that produced water is a byproduct and has no substantial value, it isn't uncommon for produced water leaks to occur because those lines are not monitored to the degree that oil and gas pipelines are. Once produced water is released into the environment, if it is not contained quickly and aggressively, the results can be disastrous as we have unfortunately seen first hand. Because oil and water do not mix readily, the rate at which spilled oil absorbs into the ground is relatively slow. This attribute can be very helpful with clean-up efforts if the spill is responded to quickly. Comparatively, produced water will spread and leach into the earth rapidly. Because it contains such highly concentrated levels of salts, among other things, even a small spill can create a large impact area if allowed to spread.

In our experience, protecting water has always been a top priority to maintain overall environmental health. The organic life present in these different environments, particularly those in freshwater ecosystems, are very susceptible to any change in water quality. Due to its nature, produced water poses a great threat to this. The effects start small and target plants and organisms at the bottom of their respective food chains which has a compounding effect on all of the other plants and animals that depend on them. Produced water spills that occur over time have an effect akin to sterilization of the environment where little, if anything, can survive. A large aspect of the work we do at Genus is partnering with other organizations and academic institutions to facilitate new research into how to best remediate and restore areas that have been impacted by produced water. This past year we were able to use a produced water spill location to field test one just one of the many research ideas with very hopeful results.

The oil and gas industry in the United States has a long history. There has been a booming influx in oil production across the country, and much of the infrastructure that was put in place over the past century is still there. The issue of either mismanaged modern, or abandoned and decaying infrastructure is in many of our own communities, just a few feet under the ground or down an old county road. Genus believes a productive first step to resolving the occurrence of produced water spills is expanding preventative education and modern response techniques. We hope to be able to work collectively and develop tools, techniques, and technology that are both effective and widely available. Better equipping those in the field can create sustainable environmental restoration for us all.

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