Many water needs in the region have been met by buying supplies from farmers and ranchers, but a Noble Energy manager said Tuesday the oil and gas industry could and should stop being a part of that problem, and explained what his company is doing to get water.
The large energy developer is looking to use deep groundwater wells — drawing “non-tributary water” — to meets its needs down the road, said Ken Knox, senior adviser and water resources manager for Noble, during his presentation at the Colorado Farm Show in Greeley.
Farmers and others who pump groundwater typically draw water that’s less than 100 feet below the Earth’s surface — water that’s considered to be “tributary,” because it’s connected to the watershed on the surface and over time flows underground into nearby rivers and streams, where it’s used by farmers, cities and others.
Wanting to avoid water that’s needed by other users, Knox said Noble is looking to have in place about a handful of deep, non-tributary groundwater wells that draw from about 800 to 1,600 feet below the Earth’s surface.
Digging wells that deep is considered too expensive for farmers, Knox and others said Tuesday, and the quality of water at that depth is typically unusable for municipal or agricultural uses.
One of Noble’s deep groundwater wells is already in place, and the company is currently going through water court to get another four operating in the region down the road, Knox said. Along with digging deeper for water, Knox explained that Noble across the board is “strategically looking” to develop water supplies that don’t put them in competition with agriculture or cities.
Oil and gas development, according to the Colorado Division of Natural Resources, only used about 0.11 percent of the state’s water in 2012 — very little compared to agriculture, which uses about 85 percent of the state’s supplies.
But in places like Weld County — where about 80 percent of the state’s oil and gas production is taking place, and where about 25 percent of the state’s agriculture production is going on, and where the population has doubled since 1990 and is expected to continue growing — finding ways for an economy-boosting energy industry to not interfere with the water demands of farmers, ranchers and cities is critical.
The growing water demands of the region is coupled with the fact that the cheapest way to build water supplies is to purchase them from farmers and ranchers who are leaving the land and willing to sell. Those factors leave the South Platte Basin, which covers most of northeast Colorado, potentially having as many as 267,000 acres of irrigated farmland dry up by 2050, according to the Statewide Water Supply Initiative Study, released by the state in 2010.
With that in mind, the Colorado Farm Show offered its “Water Resources Panel: Agriculture, Urban and Oil and Development Interactions.”
Joining Knox on the panel were John Stulp, who is special policy adviser on water to Gov. John Hickenlooper; Dave Nettles, division engineer with the Water Resources Division office in Greeley; and Jim Hall, resources manager for the city of Greeley. The panel was moderated by Reagan Waskom, director of the Colorado Water Institute at Colorado State University.
Knox also spoke Tuesday of Noble’s and other energy companies’ efforts to recycle the water they use in drilling for oil and gas — a hydraulic fracturing process, or “fracking,” that involves blasting water, sand and chemicals into rock formations, about 7,000 feet into the ground, to free oil and natural gas.
The average horizontal well uses about 2.8 million gallons of water. Some water initially flows out of the well, but another percentage flows back over time. Knox stressed it is cheaper for companies to dispose of that returned water and buy fresh water for drilling purposes than it is to build facilities that treat used water.
But, seeing the need to make the most of water supplies in the region, Noble is willing to invest in water-recycling facilities and other water-efficiency endeavors.
Hall noted that the city of Greeley, which leases water to both ag users and oil and gas users, has seen a decrease in the amount of water it leases for energy development. With improved technology and improved drilling techniques, also decreasing is the amount of land oil and gas development is using, and the number of water trucks on rural roads.
Knox said oil and gas companies — once requiring about 8 acres for one well site — can now put four to eight wells on just 3 acres, meaning the impact on farm and ranch land is less than it once was. By becoming more water efficient, he said Noble has decreased its water truck loads by 1.65 million annually, and reduced its carbon dioxide emissions by 264,000 tons.