Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
— Samuel Taylor Coleridge
By Max Wright
We in the Permian Basin are children of the sea, for 265 million years ago the land where we live was the vast Permian Sea, with the Guadalupe Mountains being an underwater coral reef on the borders of this great expanse of water. That water is still with us, but now it is thousands of feet below the surface of our dry land, and indeed, it is everywhere and none of it is drinkable. We have brine, produced water, recycled water, frac water, potable and non-potable water, and many other categories of water. Fresh water found at shallower depths gives life to humans, animals and plants; it’s drinkable, or potable. The deeper water of the Permian Sea also has it beneficial uses, but it comes with significant problems.
First, there’s a lot of it; much of West Texas and eastern New Mexico were underwater, and it is part of underground systems that have used organic materials to produce oil and gas. When you drill for oil and gas, you know you are going to find water.
Second, it’s salt water; it was an ocean. It contains other contaminants, many of which may be toxic to animals and plants, but it also contains minerals, some of which we are learning how to mine.
Third, when the water comes to the surface with the oil and gas that are being recovered, we have to figure out what to do with it, because there literally is “nor any drop to drink.” Without treatment, it has no practical use.
To deal with the quantity of water produced, many years ago we figured out that the water could be put back in the ground. When we were recovering oil from zones with greater porosity and permeability, the water would flow back in a little easier, and we also used water to drive oil and gas out of those zones.
Today, we’re drilling in zones that have much greater density where we use hydraulic fracturing to break up the rock and release the hydrocarbons; disposing of the water in those zones requires that the water be injected under pressure that exceeds the pushback from the formation. Water under pressure finds every nook and cranny of the subsurface world, and where rock has broken and slipped over millions of years, there are a lot of faults where the rock is kept from sliding against other rock by weight and friction; water provides lubrication, the faults slip and we experience earthquakes; we’re learning a lot about seismic events in our part of the country.
Water has become a dominant topic in the oil and gas industry in the last decade, and a group of people in the industry led by Jim Woodcock and others figured out that we needed a forum for exchanging information about water, what to do with it, what to do to it, how to handle it responsibly, and how to protect the fresh water that is essential to human life. It was a privilege to be on the original board of directors for the Permian Basin Water In Energy Conference. We started very small, not knowing how big of an audience we might attract, to being one of the most important water conferences in the world. We partnered with The University of Texas Permian Basin, and two years ago we were able to present the conference to UTPB. Some of the original board, supplemented by many others with expertise in water, working with and under the oversight of UTPB, have continued to put together an extraordinary conference every year.
The 2024 PBWIEC will be held at the Bush Convention Center in Midland on March 5 through 7. The PBWIEC has never been a trade show; it is an information exchange featuring some of the most knowledgeable people in the industry. It is also a networking event for UTPB students who have an interest in solving water problems. We invite you to join us for the most informational conference you will ever attend. Go to waterinenergy.com for more information and to register; you’ll be glad you did!
Max Wright is with the Shafer, Davis, O’Leary & Stoker Law Firm.