A multiwell oil and gas project proposed for a drought-ridden Denver suburb would require 4.4 trillion gallons of water — enough to fill 6,679 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
Crestone Peak Resources Operating LLC asked state regulators on April 28 for permission to drill 164 wells in Colorado’s third largest city, where residents are facing water restrictions prompted by declining reservoir levels. Lakes that the Denver suburb of Aurora relies on are only 63% full. Some residents are using dish water to sustain their plants.
Now, as water used in oil and gas production is increasing, arid Western states are asking if the industry is using too much of a precious resource.
“Why are the citizens asked to bear the brunt of the drought when we see oil and gas operators using so much water?” asked Kevin Chan, who leads the grassroots group Save the Aurora Reservoir opposed to the project, at a March hearing of the state House Energy & Environment Committee on a bill seeking to reduce freshwater use by the fossil fuel industry.
Four of five of the nation’s top oil-producing states are in the arid West, where water supplies hit historic lows in 2022 due to global warming, a 1,200-year megadrought and record population growth. A wet winter did not provide equally for Colorado’s eight river basins, with central and southern regions reporting reservoirs as low as 35% of capacity this spring.
With growth across the West expected to continue, lawmakers from Colorado to New Mexico to Texas have passed laws since 2019 requiring consortiums of energy officials, scientists, regulators and others to figure out how to reuse and recycle contaminated frack water (known as produced water).
Energy companies require an average of 15 million gallons of water to frack a single well — a process by which water, chemicals and sand are injected at high pressure to open cracks in shale, releasing oil and gas.
Reuse already occurs in some regions: In the Piceance Basin on Colorado’s Western Slope, Terra Energy Partners LLC treats and reuses most fracking water. In others, it doesn’t. Operators in the Denver-Julesburg Basin on the eastern side of the Rockies, the state’s largest oil play, permanently dispose of all but a fraction of the polluted water.
Overall, oil and gas companies in Colorado more than doubled their use of freshwater in extraction activities in the last decade, even as production fell, found the nonprofit FracTracker Alliance in a May report. Water used per well is increasing in other oil-producing states as well, statistics show.
Energy companies have emphasized that other users consume more water than they do — agriculture relies on more than 80% of such supplies to irrigate crops, and municipalities use around 11%.
“The oil and gas industry in Colorado utilizes less than 1% of the water used in the state,” testified Bill Groffy, director of legislative and regulatory affairs for the Colorado Oil & Gas Association, which represents 200 companies, at the House committee hearing in March. The industry “supports the idea of reusing and recycling water in our operations,” he added, saying, “Various oil and gas fields require different expectations for water use.”
With the stakes growing as the globe warms, state consortiums face myriad challenges, including determining what’s in fracking wastewater, how to test for it and treat it, and how to build the infrastructure to do so. The task is complicated by trade protections that allow companies to keep secret the chemicals used in the fracking process.
Several states are already experimenting with treating “produced water,” using it to irrigate crops and to control dust and ice on roads. Capturing this water is particularly attractive in some oil and gas basins, where more water comes out of wells than energy companies put in.
States regulate the disposal of “produced water” from oil and gas operations under rules specified in the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. Today, most of this water, polluted by hydrocarbons, salts and myriad toxic chemicals, is injected deep underground. Only 1%-2% is used outside the oil and gas field, according to a 2022 study published by the Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, or MDPI.
Produced water consortium
In Colorado, residents and lawmakers are questioning the merits of continuing to waste this water as climate change dries lakes and rivers.
“The volume of water used in oil and gas wells in Colorado continues to climb,” said state Democratic Sen. Lisa Cutter on the state Senate floor on May 3. “Unlike for many other uses, this water is not recycled, it’s used only once and then disposed of forever; we cannot afford to be that capricious with our water supply.”
Cutter sponsored a law passed along partisan lines on May 4 that requires regulators to adopt rules before December 2024 to prompt “a rapid and substantial reduction of the use of freshwater and an increase in the recycling of produced water in oil and gas operations.”
The bill, sent by the state Legislature to Gov. Jared Polis on May 22, also requires the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, or COGCC, to collect data about the amount of freshwater used in fracking and the amount of produced water reused in oil and gas exploration.
“We’ve never been asked to collect a lot of information around produced water,” said COGCC Commissioner John Messner, who convened an informal produced water consortium of about 50 members in 2022. “This bill takes a giant step forward to move the needle on produced water reuse and recycling in Colorado.”
The law formalizes the consortium by providing funding and staff and stipulating it include state and federal regulators, energy officials from the state’s four fossil fuel-producing basins, scientists, environmental advocates, state and local lawmakers and representatives from communities disproportionately impacted by industrial activities.
The group must present a report to the state Legislature before May 2024 detailing how state and federal agencies can better coordinate rules governing produced water. It is also required to advise lawmakers about legislation, or new rules, its members believe are required to remove barriers to recycling produced water.
Chief among these challenges: There are no analytical methods to detect and quantify many of the more than 1,000 chemicals found in the largest waste stream emitted from oil and gas fields, according to a literature review that screened 16,000 published articles for data on chemicals found in this wastewater.
“There’s not a lot of research out there on produced water,” said Cloelle Danforth, a lead author on the 2020 review and a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund.
“If you think about domestic wastewater, it’s publicly owned and we can study it,” she added. “Oil and gas wastewater is not publicly owned. And there is no incentive for companies to share (water for sampling).”
Scientists first must understand what is in the water before they can consider how to test for it and treat it — methods that could vary by field and company, she added. Danforth cautioned that researchers must evaluate the potential risk of reusing produced water outside oil and gas basins before regulators set recycling targets.
Research is underway in Colorado on the reuse of water on site to frack new wells, a process scientists found can save companies hundreds of thousands of dollars a month.
“We are interested in identifying new technology to treat produced water,” said James Rosenblum, who founded a company that specializes in the reuse of this wastewater on oil and gas sites.
Rosenblum worked with a team from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the Colorado School of Mines, where he is an assistant professor, to develop a system that uses microbes to clean toxins from produced water. The biochemist presented his research in recent months at the New Mexico Produced Water Consortium and Colorado’s informal consortium, of which he is a part.
“New Mexico started this work first, followed by Texas,” he said, adding Colorado is not “trying to reinvent the wheel — we are trying to build off of their hard work.”
As Colorado’s produced water consortium is formalized, state regulators are reviewing voluminous documents filed by Crestone Peak Resources Operating, LLC, acquired by Civitas Resources Inc. in 2021, as part of its application to drill 164 wells in Aurora.
Residents in neighborhoods overlooking the proposed development are calibrating their sprinklers to water only two days a week — to meet restrictions imposed by the city’s water department — as they await the announcement of a comment period and hearing schedule for the plan.