The American Petroleum Institute estimates that about 1.21 bbl of drilling waste are generated for every foot drilled in the U.S., nearly 50% of which is solid waste.
Though various federal and local laws and regulations govern the disposal of oilfield waste, regulatory compliance is not itself a sufficiently high standard to ensure the industry’s license to operate. Especially in this period of declined oil prices, with operators driven to cut costs wherever possible, it is critical that as an industry we recognize those technologies that provide a high degree of environmental surety while reducing near-term and long-term costs. We must demonstrate that we can manage our wastes in ways that improve the economic and environmental sustainability of our developments.
Before we address this question, we must consider several macro trends:
- The great crew change: A survey by Oil & Gas IQ found that about 50% of industry geophysicists and engineers will retire by 2018. The industry must rapidly disseminate best practices.
- The down rotation: Historically, as legacy fields decline, they pass hands to successively smaller operators who have cost structures to manage these fields but who may be limited in their technical capabilities and access to cutting-edge knowledge.
- New frontiers: New basins are often distant from historical oil and gas infrastructure. Trucking and rail stand in for the pipeline networks that support legacy fields. Moreover, the discovery and development of these new frontiers has been led by nimble new entrants and mid-sized players with deep but narrowly focused expertise. Waste management is not typically a core competency of these companies; thus, they have a far greater propensity than their supermajor brethren to dispose of their wastes at sites operated by untraditional players.
- The skeptical public: This is an era in which societies are critically reliant on low-cost energy yet deeply skeptical about the industry’s means of producing it.
Within this context, let’s revisit how we can manage our wastes in ways that improve the economics of hydrocarbon development while being good stewards of our environment.
First, we can reduce the costs related to material handling and disposal by improving techniques for recycling flowback water, produced water and drilling muds and by performing these services close to the well sites. We can adopt well-known best practices like cuttings or slurry injection. Cuttings injection allows for disposal of a full spectrum of oil and gas waste at a single site with vastly reduced permit times and surface acreage requirements compared to traditional landfills yet with far greater long-term protection of precious land and groundwater resources. These features allow cuttings injection facilities to be located close to drilling activity, even as said activity moves across a basin. Cuttings reinjection has long been established as the gold standard for disposing of oilfield solid wastes, particularly in remote or environmentally sensitive areas. This technology is proven as an environmentally sound process that contributes to dramatic reductions in costs associated with managing oilfield byproducts and the often underfunded long-term costs of site abandonment and remediation.
We are operating in an environment where new entrants are developing new frontiers with new personnel under the eyes of a skeptical public. By applying and improving upon known best practices, we can reduce today’s costs while protecting our industry’s license to operate tomorrow.