Pipe dream now a reality

Use of conduits helps cut down truck traffic

Tyler Bittner, district manager for WPX Energy, discusses the company’s operations during a visit to a well pad in Parachute last October by some members of a state oil and gas force task force, including Russ George, also pictured. The task force has made recommendations for addressing impacts from oil and gas development, including a recommendation spearheaded by George to study how to reduce truck trips from drilling. Photo by Dennis Webb



When WPX Energy developed 87 natural gas wells from 14 pads at Hayes Gulch east of Parachute, it made use of one centralized facility to hydraulically fracture all the wells from a single location, rather than setting up fracking operations on each pad.

By moving fracking fluid via temporary pipelines instead, it eliminated an estimated 12,000 truck trips to the pads.

It likewise moved water produced by the wells by pipeline to a centralized treatment facility so hydrocarbons could be removed and the water could be recycled in fracking other Hayes Gulch wells. Altogether, WPX handled 145 million gallons of fracking and produced-water fluid by pipeline rather than truck at Hayes Gulch — enough to fill 220 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

“That’s huge,” said Tyler Bittner, WPX’s district manager in western Colorado’s Piceance Basin. Cutting truck trips cut noise and dust, and danger to wildlife, and fracking from a single, remote location allowed for the construction of smaller well pads. That’s less arid land that WPX faces the challenge of reclaiming later.

The benefits to wildlife of remote fracking at Hayes Gulch were enough that it enabled WPX to obtain Bureau of Land Management waivers from seasonal operational limits sometimes required to protect habitat. That let it drill year round to get the project finished altogether.

“It was a huge, huge thing for us to be able to move in and then get out of an area,” Bittner said.

The project is just one example of how WPX has overhauled its approach to fluid management in less than a decade. It has done nearly 11,000 remote fracturing jobs since 2006, with a typical well in the Piceance Basin’s heavily drilled Mesaverde sandstone formation undergoing about five or six frack jobs, or stages, along different sections of the well. The result has been the elimination of nearly 600,000 heavy truck trips along public roads, cutting associated truck traffic by 90 percent, the company says.

Its efforts have resulted in awards from both the BLM and Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

Bittner, in a presentation at a recent Garfield County Energy Advisory Board meeting, said the undertaking came in response to a problem. By 2007, WPX was needing to use 30,000 barrels a day of water for fracking its local wells. A barrel is 42 gallons. That was requiring delivery of 300 truckloads of water a day, or nearly 110,000 a year. Besides the cost involved, the company was catching criticism from the public over the high level of truck traffic.

“We knew we had thousands of wells to drill in the valley here, and we needed to find a better way,” Bittner said.

Meanwhile, it also had wells producing about 34 barrels of produced water for every million cubic feet of gas. It’s a briny saltwater with total dissolved solids of 15,000 to 19,000 parts per million, compared to a recommended maximum of 500 tds for drinking water. But what isn’t drinkable turns out to be eminently useful for fracking. WPX has found that, due to its chemistry, produced water from local Mesaverde wells works well in fracking other local wells, unlike water in Front Range drilling that must be thickened through additives into a highly viscous condition to be used effectively in the formations being fracked there.

WPX has reached the point where it can pump frack fluid by pipelines to wells from remote fracturing sites as far as four miles away. It’s not the only local company doing remote fracking and water recycling, and has on occasion shared infrastructure such as pipelines with companies such as Encana for certain projects.

WPX doesn’t recycle water and remotely frack for all of its drilling, due to situations such as where it is exploring for gas in new locations and doesn’t yet have the water pipelines and other infrastructure in place. It’s currently not reusing any water for fracking because of a temporary suspension of its fracking operations as it seeks to negotiate lower prices with service providers due to low oil and gas prices.

But recycling water where WPX can reduces the need and expense associated with having to dispose of wastewater through means such injection wells or having it hauled to disposal sites. WPX spokesman Jeff Kirtland said it also manages some excess water by sharing it with companies that are still fracking in the area.

Remote fracking eliminates the need for anywhere from 60 to 100 tanks on a well pad. Those tanks require a large footprint, must be delivered, and the tank bottoms must be cleaned out. They also each represent potential sources of leaks that remote fracking eliminates.

WPX’s remote fracking does involve the use of centralized fluid holding pits. The threat of pit leaks is addressed through the installation of dual plastic liners separated by a mesh layer, with a system in place to detect when fluid has breached the primary liner. Monitoring wells also are installed to watch for leaks. Netting and fencing are put in place to protect birds and other wildlife, any oil is skimmed off the surface of the pit water within 24 hours of showing up, the water is circulated and treated to prevent buildup of bacteria that cause odors, and at least two feet of room is left in the pits to allow for catching any stormwater without the pit overflowing.

WPX inspects the pits daily. Some of its measures are required by state pit rules that took effect in 2009, while it has implemented others on its own accord.

While pits aren’t without risks, two of them put in place as part of a new remote fracking operation in WPX’s Ryan Gulch drilling project in Rio Blanco County have enabled it to achieve a reduction of 33,000 truck trips there compared to the previous year.

WPX may have to rethink its use of the pits for water handling, at least when drilling on federal lands. The BLM Friday announced a new rule focused on fracking that includes a requirement that interim storage of wastewater occur in above-ground tanks rather than lined pits, with limited exceptions. Kirtland said WPX would have to review the rule to determine what effect it might have.

Bittner noted that recycling water for fracking reduces WPX’s need for fresh water that might come from a local waterway.

“That is so huge, especially in times of drought,” he said.

He said recycled water has been showing no drop in quality over time that would eventually prevent it from being used again.

“We just keep reusing it … hopefully forever,” Bittner said.


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