March 2023

Water management

The complexity of produced water management (Produced Water Society)
Mark Patton / Hydrozonix

Produced Water Management is a complex endeavor and full of many challenges, especially in the onshore, unconventional, produced water market. This is basically the produced water from hydraulic fracturing, which has become—at least in North America—the largest produced water market, due to sheer volumes of water.  

From the technology side, you have differing water qualities from well to well and different water qualities from area to area. You have the majority of the water coming from the Permian basin, with a range of 150,000-300,000 ppm of high total dissolved solids (TDS). Then, you have some areas with relatively low TDS  under 30,000 ppm, in places like the Eagle Ford and Powder River basin. Then, you have the difference between flowback water, your first 30 days of water production from a new well, which will include your frac chemicals, and you transition into your ongoing produced water that is more like formation water without the frac chemicals.  

You also have the chemistry challenge of high bacteria loads, high iron and sometimes high sulfides; but again, these parameters all vary widely, while having different treatment standards from operator to operator. Now, add the regulatory complexity, which varies from state to state. You can, for example, recycle in Texas under Permit by Rule, but other states will require permitting. Some locations have power available, while many others don’t.  

Then, the volumes can vary widely from 25,000 to 30,000 bpd to 80,000 to 110,000 bpd. You may have to ramp up your capacity in a very short time from 30,000 to 50,000 bp and go to 100,000 bpd with very little notice. Additionally, this may be for a couple months and then nothing for a couple months or, in some cases, it can be year-round. More commonly, there will be weeks to months of periodic breaks, due to scheduling of frac fleets, oil pricing or other factors. 

The seismicity factor. Today, we have seismicity as the newest variable added. In very general terms, you are sending about 70% of produced water to a disposal well and recycling 30%. The recycling rate is growing, partly because earthquakes are impacting disposal volumes and, as a result, more water is being redirected. Again, this is even more complex: some operators are restricted by landowners from recycling or are required to purchase water from landowners. They also may be locked into water purchase agreements that require water purchases. Even with an increase in recycling, we are not likely to offset the lost disposal capacity, due to seismicity.  

Seismicity has created a new complexity and that is getting to discharge quality to remove capacity from disposal wells. Now, you have a larger technical, chemical and regulatory burden to overcome and a much higher cost, but this is the future of the industry. I’ve discussed this complexity before, so why am I revisiting this?  

PWS seminar adds value. I recently attended the Produced Water Society Annual Seminar in February. This is one of the few places where all the stakeholders meet and discuss these complexities. You have operators, service companies, equipment suppliers, regulators, chemical suppliers, industry groups, academia and other stakeholders in the room, sharing insights, latest research, new trends, technical and chemical challenges, and the newest regulations.  

The Produced Water Society (PWS) Annual Seminar was held on Feb. 6–9 in Houston, Texas, at the Royal Sonesta Houston Galleria. There is a mix of presentations and panel discussions on technology and chemistry challenges, regulatory updates, pending legislation, new technologies, onshore and offshore markets, capital markets, heavy oil and oil sands, academic research and study results, sustainability and ESG. Every imaginable topic is covered, using roundtable discussions, panel discussions or presentations. This is a widely attended event that brings people from all facets of the produced water industry from across the globe. 

PWS had their first meetings back in 1990, which were focused primarily on offshore produced water management. PWS was formally incorporated in 1999 as a 501 (c) (3) organization. In about 2012, with the growth of the unconventional oil market, PWS became more onshore-focused. In about 2017, onshore became their primary focus, while still maintaining an offshore component to their events.  

PWS mission and benefits. Their mission has been “to improve the management and disposition of produced water, through the facilitation and exchange of technical knowledge.” Unlike other organizations, PWS has taken on a leadership role, including defining a standard for produced water recycling at a time when there was no consensus. This standard is used today by operators and midstream operators and incorporated into service agreements and contracts. Through their Board of Directors and Technical Committees, there is a collaboration between operators, midstreams, regulators, academia, technology providers and service companies that is truly unique. Their global membership has ranged up to 1,500 members, with almost 7,000 online/virtual members and followers on social media platforms.  

Membership has its benefits, as well, including access to a massive library of 33 years of technical publications and papers, access to free webinars and podcasts, access to their newsletter, continuing education credit opportunities, discounts to seminars, workshops and training, discounts on published technical journals and books, as well as an opportunity to publish technical papers. I know this is beginning to sound like a PWS commercial, but I feel it necessary to applaud and recognize their efforts. 

Fostering collaboration. You see, it takes collaboration between all the stakeholders to establish a consensus, to allow for progress to take place. And as an industry, there are not many opportunities to participate in this collaboration and learn from it. At this year’s event, there were some great topics and insightful discussions and dialogue. It can be a little overwhelming at times, but when you’re part of a growing and maturing industry that is changing rapidly, it takes that type of engagement to stay in tune with your industry. I encourage you to go to to learn more. 

Many of the topics I cover in my column are addressed and discussed at the annual seminar. If we want to grow as an industry, we need to get involved in vital organizations like PWS, so we can learn and grow as individuals but also as a community and industry. Change is coming, whether you like it or not, so stay engaged and educated by collaborating with like-minded and focused individuals. This is a great way to do it. See you next column. 

About the Authors
Mark Patton
Mark Patton is president of Hydrozonix and has more than 30 years of experience developing water and waste treatment systems for the oil and gas industry. This includes design, permitting and operation of commercial and private treatment systems, both nationally and internationally. He has seven produced water patents and two patents pending. He earned his B.S. in chemical engineering from the University of Southern California (USC) in 1985.
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