Oil and gas production in Texas creates 38 billion barrels of of toxic wastewater per year and there are limited reuse options for it. It’s a water-energy nexus nightmare!
Oil and gas production creates a lot of wastewater that is expensive to treat. West Texas is the top oil producing region in the country, and the Permian Basin is the largest oil producing basin in the region. Drilling operations in the Permian produce an estimated 170 billion gallons per year, according to a recent study by the Produced Water Consortium, which was commissioned by Texas legislators to study recycling produced water. The actual amounts of produced water are unknown because the state doesn’t require operators to report how much water they actually produce.
The region is facing a looming water shortage that will likely see a shortfall of 20 billion gallons per year by 2030, but treatment of the wastewater that is laced with naturally occurring contaminants like salts, minerals and radioactive materials as well as chemicals involved in drilling operations would be extremely costly at upwards of $10 per barrel. In California, produced water from oil drilling is used to irrigate crops (irrigating with water from fracking operations is banned even though fracking processes use similar chemicals).
In addition, the treatment process would leave a salt brine that would require proper disposal (this is an issue desalination operations that produce water for irrigation and domestic uses have to deal with as well). Fracking operations that drill for natural gas face a similar issue managing the voluminous amounts of produced water.
The situation is a reminder of the many ways that the water-energy-food nexus works. Understanding how the systems influence each other will become increasingly important as water scarcity forces the hand of resource managers and lawmakers alike.