Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Just a few years ago, Fort Worth, Texas-based Bosque Systems mostly operated waste- water disposal wells for oil and gas operators. And another oil-field company, FTS International, was busy becoming one of the nation’s biggest providers of hydraulic fracturing services.
Now, both are rolling out water-recycling operations, motivated by the same driver — producers’ high costs of acquiring and disposing of water at oil and natural-gas drilling sites in regions that are either arid or lack an inexpensive water-disposal infrastructure.
In those areas, such as Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale and the dry plains of West Texas, water and disposal costs can approach and even exceed $1 million per well. Drilling and fracturing a horizontal well can use 5 million gallons of water or more.
“What’s critical about this is, you can tell a customer he can reuse a lot of that water,” said Greg Lanham, CEO at Fort Worth-based FTS. One of the company’s Aquacor units can clean as much as 15,000 barrels of water a day, or 630,000 gallons, of the fracturing fluid that flows back out of the well after the job is completed.
It doesn’t have to be drinkable. It just needs enough of the salts, metals and other contaminants removed so it won’t interfere with the chemistry of the chemical fluids used in the next fracturing job.
And it has to be done at a price producers are willing to pay.
More water-service companies are betting they can do that and are gearing up to meet demand.
For example, Bosque Systems expects to double its payroll, from 250 to about 500, by year’s end, CEO Clane Lacrosse says.
The 7-year-old company operates disposal wells only in the Barnett Shale, but the walls of a conference room in its downtown Fort Worth offices are covered with maps of its operations in the other plays. The company started to expand its offerings in 2008 and can manage water from acquisition to treatment to disposal.
“We see that trend becoming bigger,” said Marc Bellanger, the company’s marketing manager.
FTS, formerly Frac Tech, has tested its Aquacor service in the Barnett Shale and expects to have three of the systems by year’s end. Each unit includes three truck-mounted components.
Roanoke, Texas-based Fountain Quail Water Management, the busiest water recycler in the Barnett Shale, in February said it contracted to install two of its water-treatment units in the Permian Basin. It said it expected the job to produce more than $5 million a year initially.
That would represent a big boost for the company, which was hit hard by the collapse in natural-gas prices after 2008, said Brent Halldorson, chief operating officer of Fountain Quail, which has about 40 employees. The company operates nine freshwater distilling units and one filtering unit, which produces clean saltwater.
When the Barnett Shale served as the opening stage of the U.S. shale boom, water reuse was something of a novelty. Producers could acquire plenty of water at relatively low prices, and disposal wells provided a ready means of getting rid of the contaminated flowback.
Even now, as the field has matured, water reuse and recycling is the exception rather than the rule in the Barnett. According to a 2012 study by the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas-Austin, only about 5 percent of the total water used for hydraulic fracturing was recycled or reused in the field.
Halldorson said that sounds about right. Though between 75 percent and 80 percent of the water that flows back out of a well can be recycled, he said, only about a third of fluid returns from Barnett wells. So new water will still be needed even when recycling.
“We expected it to become more prolific earlier,” Halldorson said. When his company got into the business nearly a decade ago, he said, “it was almost more like a pilot project” rather than a mainstream activity.
Cost remains a hurdle.
Jay Ewing, Devon Energy’s longtime water-use expert in the Barnett, told a Texas House committee hearing in February that the company’s cost of recycling, while it varies by location, “is 50 [percent] to 75 percent more expensive than the alternatives.”
That’s going to change, says Ross Craft, CEO of Fort Worth-based Approach Resources.
“The cost of water is huge” at the company’s operations in Crockett County, south of Midland, Texas, Craft said. The company amassed 168,000 acres in the Wolfcamp formation and has sunk $45 million just to handle its water needs as it develops the acreage.