In the fossil energy industry, water is critical to almost every phase of operations, and huge quantities of highly contaminated water are a waste byproduct of the industry. In fact, by 2030, oil and gas production sites across the nation are expected to produce more than 60 million barrels of wastewater per day.
Wastewater disposal is currently the leading water management practice in the United States due to the many challenges associated with treating wastewater, such as the cost and complexity of the treatment process and high concentrations of contaminants. However, disposal is not a long-term solution. Disposal capacity is increasingly constrained, and disposal in geologic formations has been known to induce seismicity.
While lowering the cost of technology to treat wastewater is now a practical necessity, the United States also stands to benefit in several ways from using treated wastewater as a resource.
Repurposing Wastewater = A Huge Step Forward
Reuse. Once treated, recycled wastewater could be employed in many industries beyond fossil energy. For example, wastewater could contribute to renewable energy through reuse in hydrogen production. Treated wastewater could also be used in the irrigation of non-edible crops, contributing to the United States’ agricultural industry.
Water management. Water is a fixed and precious resource, one that requires our increasing attention due to climate change. Water scarcity, variability, and uncertainty are becoming more prominent, potentially leading to vulnerabilities in the U.S. energy system. And as the nation transitions to a decarbonized energy industry, water management will only grow in importance, since many decarbonization methods are water-intensive. Treating wastewater so that it can be repeatedly recycled within the fossil energy industry would help decrease the energy sector’s freshwater consumption and contribute to our nation’s responsible management of this resource.
Resource recovery. Wastewater generated by the U.S. energy industry could also become a domestic source of much-needed critical minerals. Produced water from oil and natural gas development and production, for example, contains a variety of valuable minerals, including potentially significant quantities of the lithium needed for battery technologies.
Justice. Developing the capability to reuse wastewater offers an opportunity to put the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) commitment to energy and environmental justice in action. Water that is treated for reuse could increase the availability of fresh water in arid and semi-arid regions of the nation and provide economic and health benefits to communities that have been affected by stressed water resources and legacy pollution.
FECM Efforts Push the Boundaries of What’s Possible in Wastewater Treatment
It’s an exciting time to be working in water management at DOE’s Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management (FECM). We recently announced the creation of the Division of Advanced Remediation Technologies’ Water Management program, which for the first time brings all FECM water management activities under one roof in order to advance the affordability, reliability, sustainability, and resilience of water in the energy sector (learn more in the Summer 2022 edition of the National Energy Technology Laboratory’s Water-Energy Nexus News). NETL’s Produced Water Application for Beneficial Reuse, Environmental Impact and Treatment Optimization project is creating an award-winning product: an open-source optimization framework for the oil and gas industry to identify fit-for-purpose produced water management practices. And NETL’s Multi-functional Sorbent Technology (also an award winner) represents a game-changing, low-cost process to mitigate the devastating effects of acid mine drainage on waterways, groundwater, and fragile aquatic ecosystems. The list goes on and on!
You can contribute to advancing technology in this field too. FECM recently released a request for information seeking input on the characterization, treatment and cleaning, and management of (1) effluent water from oil and natural gas development and production, and (2) legacy wastewater associated with thermal power generation. To address the challenges of developing new treatment technologies, we need industry, universities, state and local governments, non-governmental organizations, and other stakeholders to apply their expertise, so that together we can turn wastewater into a valued resource for the American public.