Policy Analysis of Water Availability and Produced Water Issues Associated with In-Situ Thermal Production
- Identify water requirements associated with oil shale and oil sands development
- Identify water sources and the extent to which water is available from those sources
- Explain the process for obtaining and reallocating water rights
- Identify and discuss barriers to water resource acquisition and reallocation
- Address regulation of water produced as a byproduct of energy development and the potential reuse of this water
- Address indirect constraints on water use and availability such as requirements imposed by the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act, and Safe Drinking Water Act
Department of Energy, National Energy Technology Laboratory
Oil shale and oil sands production require water, which is in short supply throughout the intermountain west. Demand for water resources will increase over the coming decades as population, recognition of instream water uses, energy production, and climate change place new demands on water resources. New fuel development will require acquisition of existing water rights and conversion of these water rights to new uses. While market reallocation of water resources is a well-established process, its success depends on knowledge of the attributes of competing water rights. Colorado and Utah can make competing claims to the White River. Likewise, the Northern Ute Tribe of Indians claim extensive "reserved rights" to water resources throughout the Uinta Basin. While these claims are known, their uncertain terms pose a challenge for prospective water users.
Oil, natural gas, and coalbed methane development all produce water as a byproduct. Traditionally, produced water was treated as a disposal issue because it was much deeper than, isolated from, and of a lower quality than potable water supplies. This distinction between waste products and valuable resources is crumbling as coalbed methane produces higher quality water from shallower aquifers, as the search for potable water goes deeper, and as the cost of treatment falls. Colorado recently issued regulations requiring water producers to obtain a water right unless they produce from a "non-tributary" aquifer. Wyoming also requires a water right to appropriate produced water and New Mexico is grappling with strategies to address permitting for production from deep aquifers. These challenges may be harbingers of issues ahead for oil shale producers as in situ production well depths are much shallower than most conventional oil or gas wells. Resolving these challenges raises complex questions regarding both water quality management and permitting to reuse produced water.
Resolving Colorado and Utah's competing claims to waters from the White River is difficult because the body of law that developed to apportion water between Colorado River Basin states only rarely addresses how much water must pass downstream at specific interstate rivers. Colorado makes water availability determinations regarding the White River without regard to Utah's downstream requirements. This process has worked because of limited water development in Utah's portion of the White River Basin. As holders of approved water right applications perfect their rights through application to beneficial use, conflicts will increase.
Resolution of Northern Ute reserved rights claims is problematic because of the complex issues that must be negotiated, the potential to impact water right holders who are not party to the negotiations, and historic relationships between the State of Utah and the Tribe. These reserved rights have yet to be put to beneficial use, so conflicts have yet to occur. Conflict will increase as the Tribe seeks to develop its legal rights and others seek more and more water.
In Utah, produced water treated as a waste product and the State Division of Oil, Gas, and Mining permits its disposal. The State Engineer is likely to require a water right for produced water that is subsequently put to a beneficial use, but the issue has not reached the level of concern experienced in neighboring states because Utah has very little coalbed methane development. In-situ production or growth of the coalbed methane industry is likely to engender conflict.
Our research will occur in two phases. Phase I was focused on identification of water resource requirements associated with oil shale and oil sands development, description of water resources within the development area, identification of potential sources of supply, discussion of competing claims for water, and recommendations for resolution. Phase I concluded on March 31, 2010 with the submittal of a topical report to the Department of Energy. Phase II will build on Phase I, focusing on produced water as both a waste product and as a potential source of supply for unconventional fuel development. Phase II will conclude with a topical report submission to the Department of Energy.