Water and wastewater — how to get a sufficient, sustainable supply of the former and how to dispose of or treat the latter — present a business challenge across industries. It’s acutely felt in agriculture and oil and gas production, two sectors that require massive amounts of water to produce their products while experiencing significant challenges around what to do with their wastewater.
A new water treatment and recycling project in drought-stricken California could provide a solution for both industries.
Bakersfield’s Kern County is the no. 1 oil-producing county in the US and the fourth most productive agricultural region. The state’s ongoing drought, however, means that these two water-intensive industries are competing for fresh water resources, with agriculture accounting for 80 percent of the state’s water usage.
ECT Services & Solutions is operating a treatment system in Bakersfield that recycles oilfield water into irrigation quality water that can be used at local farms.
The single-modular system, called the ECOPOD, uses OriginClear’s water treatment technology — ECT is an OriginClear licensee — and reverse osmosis to transform produced water into clean water through a chemical-free, energy-efficient process.
The pilot projects aims to provide a water recycling solution to oil and gas operators and a new water source for farmers, thus helping reduce their water costs, said Jean-Louis Kindler, OriginClear Technologies president in an interview.
“We are interested in showing that produced water, which so far has always been considered a waste and a nuisance by the oil and gas industry, is something that could have some value,” Kindler said.
The ECOPOD pilot scale system, which has been up and running since July 20, uses OriginClear’s Electro Water Separation (EWS), treating 300 to 400 barrels per day of oilfield produced water.
ECT founder and CEO Talbott Howard says prospective customers are visiting the site and it’s ready for commercial deployment. “Drilling yields up to 13 gallons of wastewater for every gallon of petroleum,” Howard said in a statement. “Federal and state pressure on the oil industry to recycle that water is creating a major business opportunity for ECT to treat up to 42 billion gallons a year in Kern County.”
It also creates a business opportunity for California farmers looking for alternative water sources for their crops, a $54 billion industry. As such, recycled oilfield wastewater has become an attractive source.
At least five oil fields in the state provide recycled water to irrigate crops including almonds, grapes, pistachios and citrus.
Chevron and the California offshoot of Occidental Petroleum, called California Resources Corporation, are the primary oil companies supplying oilfield wastewater to farmers.
But some questions remain about its safety for use on food crops — an issue currently under investigation by a panel of experts convened by the California EPA.
“There are different levels of concern,” Kindler said. “There’s the actual, very down-to-earth concern about what contaminants are present in water.” If a wastewater treatment system removes these contaminants and produces water that meets quality standards — for potable water or irrigation water — then this concern should be eliminated, he says.
But then there’s also the concern about users’ behavior. Will consumer buy food that has been irrigated with recycled oilfield water? The answer to this may depend on the situation — and how scarce and expensive water becomes.
California’s Orange County operates the world’s largest sewage purification system, which produces 100 million gallons of potable water per day. Meanwhile, El Paso and other cities in Texas — another state with limited water supplies — treat wastewater to produce drinking water.
“This question is more a matter of psychology,” Kindler said. “I personally have no problem drinking water that has been treated as long as I know how well it has been treated. But obviously there is and there will be a significant fraction of the population is reluctant to drink water that doesn’t come from mountain streams.”
As to how well the water has been treated — and whether it is safe to irrigate crops — Kindler says OriginClear’s technology speaks for itself. It pretreats wastewater, removing contaminants, so it can pass through a reverse osmosis membrane without destroying the membrane.
And while traditional water treatment uses hazardous chemicals such as chlorine, Electro Water Separation requires no chemicals. The process uses small amounts of electricity and Advanced Oxidation or AOx to remove oils, suspended solids and dissolved contaminants.
EWS is energy-efficient and can achieve up to a 99.9 percent removal of dispersed oil and a 99.5 percent removal of suspended solids and organics, as well as specific contaminants such as ammonia, phosphorus and hydrogen sulfide, the company says.
“Bundled together with a reverse osmosis system, we can reach an economic cost that is sustainable in the long-term,” Kindler said. “This is what we are trying to show in Bakersfield: reverse osmosis and EWS will make the whole solution sustainable in economic and technical terms.
“Reverse osmosis systems are doing a great job of purifying water but they have a cost: energy to provide the pressure that is needed for these systems to operate and the other cost is maintenance. The dirtier the water, the more often the membrane needs to be changed. What we propose is a solution where, because we have taken out most of the contaminants, reverse osmosis systems will have a much longer life and much lower operation costs.”
Water contracts for farmers in California can cost upwards of $2,000 per acre foot, Kindler says. For comparison, EWS, when used with reverse osmosis, costs between $1,000 and $1,300 per acre foot to treat water.
“Any technology to treat water has a cost,” Kindler said. “We know our solution is one of the most economically competitive on the market, but still it has a cost. And at some point there needs to be a realization that water isn’t just something that falls from the sky. It has to be paid for.”
As water scarcity increases — the UN projects a 40 percent water supply shortfall globally by 2030 and this represents a $63 trillion risk to business and communities, according to CDP — we expect this realization will start to sink in. And more innovative partnerships and water treatment technologies to take hold.