In the dry, dusty plains of West Texas, home to America’s most prolific oil play, the problem isn’t too little water, it’s too much of it. Just ask Will Hickey, the 31-year-old chief executive officer of Colgate Energy.
Standing on a 26-foot high rig platform in Texas’s Reeves County, Hickey watches as contractors maneuver drilling pipe almost 10,000 feet underground in search of oil. Just a half-mile away, another rig is equally hard at work. But this one, operated by WaterBridge Resources LLC, isn’t seeking oil. It’s making a hole to dispose of the vast amount of water generated from local wells.
‘‘If we don’t have a water solution we can’t produce the well, it’s as simple as that,’’ Hickey said in an interview. “It used to be that each operator handled water themselves. But the sheer volume of what’s now being produced has created an opportunity for specialized water companies to step in.” With fracking, explorers blast water, sand and chemicals down wells to crack open the oil-bearing shale below. As oil is pumped up, so is the water, combined with salt-laden water from underground reservoirs to create a toxic mix that would devastate farmland if released on the surface. With as many as four barrels of water produced for every barrel of oil, it’s a disposal nightmare that could add as much as $6 a barrel to company break-evens by 2025, according to a recent Wood Mackenzie study.
Overall, the region will pull up enough water this year alone to cover all of Rhode Island nearly a foot deep. Wall Street is well aware of the threats posed by the Permian Basin’s pipeline and labor shortages, key side effects from the region’s rapid buildup. But investors “aren’t as well apprised of some of the other risks and challenges that could be just as material, if not more so,” said Gabriel Collins, a fellow in energy and the environment at Rice University. “I’d put water right at the top of that list," he said How material? Spending on water management in the Permian Basin is likely to nearly double to more than $22 billion in just five years, according to industry consultant IHS Markit. The reason is twofold. The rig count is rising, and many of the "workhorse" disposal formations used for decades are starting to fill up, said Laura Capper, an industry consultant. That means explorers have to move water further to find a home for it. It’s a problem "that’s just going to get bigger and bigger," said Wood Mackenzie analyst Ryan Duman, "Operators are victims of their own success."
Drillers generally flush excess water back into the ground, often after trucking it to areas such as the San Andres, a region of the basin largely drilled-out early on in the shale boom. But now, with the boom hitting historic levels, that system is running into headwinds. In the San Andres, wells sunk to gather oil deeper within the play are collapsing as a result of the increased pressure from water injections, causing dozens to be closed and the loss of miles of pipe, according to Andrew Hunter, a drilling engineer at Blackstone Energy Partners-backed Guidon Energy. It’s a situation that’s "getting worse," Hunter said at a recent conference on water held in Houston. "I think people are afraid to talk about this problem. We’re trying to get the word out to let everyone know how serious this is."
At the same time, earthquakes in parts of West Texas and New Mexico that include the Permian have more than tripled to 62 with at least a 2.5 magnitude in the past year, from just six two years earlier, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. That’s data environmentalists are quick to blame on the injections, pointing to studies on similar activity in Oklahoma.
In some cases, companies are pushing to solve the problem on their own, setting up new units that deal just with water. In other cases, drillers are turning elsewhere for help, creating an emerging industry that coordinates a wide range of services, from trucking to pipelines to disposal and recycling. By this time next year, three to five of the eight large water management companies operating in the Permian could reach at least $1 billion in market value, according to Steve Coffee, president of the Produced Water Society. "There’s a need for a new midstream market," Coffee said by telephone. "One thing that’s clear: they all have different strategies and directions and niches."
The latest strategy is recycling the recovered water in a way that will allow it to be used over and over again according to Amanda Martin Brock, the chief operating officer of Solaris Midstream. There’s a variety of techniques now being explored to do this, she said at a water conference last month in Houston, but the efforts are “in early days.” “Everybody is looking for the holy grail,” she said. “It doesn’t exist. This is trial and error, this is operator specific."
Frack on the Fly
In some instances, companies are blending the recovered water with a fresh supply, helping to balance out the high salt content of the water in the reservoir. Others are using it without hardly any change, a technique being referred to as "frack on the fly." "You haven’t had a definitive technology accepted by everyone," Robert Rubey, co-founder of Goodnight Midstream, said at the recent water conference. His company chose to stay out of the recycling business because it would compete with the land owners who give him easements for his water pipelines. Those same land owners are trying to sell fresh water, he said. "I’ll help you deal with it, moving the water for recycling," he said. "But we have made a strategic decision not to try to compete with the landowners, because I can’t put them out of business."
Jason Downie, co-managing partner for Tailwater Capital LLC, says investing in water management in the region is a must if the region wants to expand its production capacity. “With West Texas representing the most significant producing area in North America, the Permian requires massive amounts of water pipeline infrastructure if we aim to meet our oil growth targets,” said Downie, whose private equity firm backs Goodnight Midstream.
WaterBridge and Solaris Midstream are pursuing both sides of the equation -- supplying fresh water upfront, and managing wastewater at the back end. WaterBridge intends to do an IPO, according to a statement on its website. Solaris is in the process of building integrated operations to gather, transport, recycle and dispose of produced water across a 300-mile swath of the Permian. The plan includes pipelines, disposal wells, storage ponds and recycling facilities.
“You’ve got two things that are just terrifying," Solaris’s Brock said during a recent conference on the issue. “One, you won’t have the water available when the frack crew needs it, and you shut down that frack. The other one: your wells are up and you’re having to choke them back, because there’s no where to send the water."