The Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality is preparing regulations that will govern how oil and gas companies use both surface and below-ground water sources in their water-intensive hydraulic fracturing operations in the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale development.
What the agency comes up with could determine whether Mississippi ever sees the billions of dollars in economic impact energy industry experts say the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale (TMS) trend could provide. Without an inexpensive – and reliable – source of water, the TMS play may never take off, both industry experts and regulators say.
The first step in creating the regulations is to learn more about the water needs of the oil and gas companies that are planning to do horizontal drilling more than 12,000 feet below ground in the three Southwest Mississippi counties (Amite, Wilkinson and Pike) believed to make up the “sweet spot” of the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale region. More immediately, the Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ, is working with a pair of companies – Encana Oil & Gas and Goodrich Petroleum – on short-term water-use policies, said Richard Harrell, director of DEQ’s Office of Pollution Control, the office charged with issuing water-use permits.
“We’re working on what they will need in the next 12 months,” Harrell said.
He said the DEQ’s role is to regulate “and to some degree find viable sources of water” for the companies to use in what could become a full scale shale oil play requiring the use of hundreds of millions of gallons of water.
Water is a key tool of the deep-ground shale rock fracturing process. With the hydraulic pressure of water, sand and chemicals exerted through a horizontal bore hole, drillers try to fracture the rock to free trapped oil and liquefied natural gas.
Unlike conventional oil drilling that draws oil that has seeped upwards and become caught in sandstone traps, shale oil drillers inject the water and other elements right into “the source rock,” explains Eric Smith, associate director of the Tulane University Energy Institute.
It’s an expensive process, added Smith, but, “With $100 oil you can do it all day and make money.”
DEQ’s Harrell is confident Southwest Mississippi has ample water to accommodate shale drilling operations for the next 12 to 16 months. Beyond that stretch, however, some resourcefulness will be required, he said.
“Right now we are doing a couple of wells a year,” he said. “But when we go to hundreds of wells a year – that’s where we told them we need a long range plan.”
By the time the Tuscaloosa play is in full production, Harrell hopes to have steered the drilling operators to alluvia aquifers that feed rivers that lie above them. This alluvia aquifers, however, can’t be the sole long-term source, he said.
Any long-range plan would involve periodic withdrawals from the alluvia aquifers to avoid massive single draws, according to Harrell. This will require setting up of reservoirs near the fracking wells from which drillers would draw water as needed, he said.
Water used in the drilling can’t be reused. The companies truck the water off to be injected into deep ground disposal wells.
Harrell insists the withdrawals so far have not altered the flow of Southwest Mississippi rivers and streams below standards set by the state.
Nonetheless, Mississippi environmentalists say they will feel more confident in state water withdrawal rules once the DEQ establishes more complete standards. At the moment, the process involves some discomforting guesswork, said Gulf Restoration Network’s Andrew Whitehurst.
The fear is a slowing of flow that could create “a series of isolated pools” where temperatures go up and dissolved oxygen levels go down, said Whitehurst, the Restoration Network’s assistant director of science and water policy.
“Everything that has gills gets in trouble with low oxygen,” he said.
DEQ is allowing production companies to take about one million gallons of fresh water from wells, rivers or ponds during each day of fracturing operations, but is “not adequately measuring the quantity of water available,” Whitehurst wrote in a Network blog last year. He criticized what he said was the absence of regulations “even as the drilling activity increases in Wilkinson, Amite and Pike counties.”
Harrell acknowledged that surface water is not the long-term answer and that is why the agency wants the companies to use a range of water sources. A cheap, reliable source of water is key to making the math work in profitably extracting the shale oil, he said.
“That’s why we told them you need to have this long-range plan that looks at additional sources of water,” Harrell added of the oil and gas companies. “We can’t tell you that you are going to be able to get this surface water” in the long term.
If the TMS shale play takes off, he said, “the answer is probably going to be ‘no.’”