New water treatment technologies may help local oil companies cope with the dual challenges of drought and the Central Valley groundwater's growing salinity, industry professionals said at a conference in Bakersfield Wednesday.
The all-day gathering of about 60 industry representatives focused on ways oil producers can make more efficient use of water when performing steam flooding, cyclic steaming and hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking" -- all of which are employed locally to produce oil.
Some approaches discussed Wednesday involve treating the waterthat many Kern County oilfield operators would otherwise dispose of. In some cases, treated water may be resold to farmers for irrigation.
Other processes showcased at the event either reduce the volume of water necessary to produce oil, or tap other sources such as reclaimed wastewater.
Water use by California oil producers is becoming a hot topic as environmentalists rally for a statewide ban on fracking, the controversial but highly effective technique of pumping water and sand underground at high pressure to release oil and gas.
The state's fracking debate had centered on the sometimes toxic chemicals used in the process. But recently, environmentalists have shifted their criticism to the amount of water that fracking consumes.
California's oil industry counters that the state's average frack job uses less than 200,000 gallons of water, compared with the several million gallons such projects typically require in Pennsylvania and other states.
Even so, some say the state's drought puts a burden on oil companies to conserve.
"We're not the only ones in the state using water" or needing it, said event chairman David Laurance, an oil exploration and production executive who has worked for major oil companies in several countries.
The trick is making oilfield water treatment and reuse more economical. Several speakers said that has begun to happen, and more companies will emerge that specialize in helping oil producers become more water efficient.
Executives with EIG Petroleum, which has operations in several states, highlighted their proprietary water ionization process. They said the technology boosts production and lowers maintenance costs, among other benefits.
A representative of Santa Maria Energy LLC promoted a novel project the company has in Santa Barbara County. It takes reclaimed water from a nearby treatment plant, pipes it eight miles underground and converts it to steam for enhanced oil production.
One speaker attracted interest with a nontoxic chemical he said increases production and lowers oil's viscosity with minimal use of water and no heat. Clean Oil Innovations Inc. CEO Todd Thompson said the product, KBT-1, is particularly effective with the kind of heavy oil predominant in Kern County.
State water officials speaking at the event drew attention to the increasing salinity of the Central Valley's groundwater, which one regulator said will continue to pose difficulty for growers.
But that same brackish water common across the valley could prove to be a good source of water for oilfields, said Jose Faria, chief of the California Department of Water Resources' special investigations branch.
He encouraged the oil industry to make use of the water by applying any one of several desalination technologies, from reverse osmosis to solar evaporators to deionization.
"We have to cooperate on ways to solve this problem," Faria said.
A member of the audience, H.M. Holloway Inc. CEO Terry Arca, said his company plans to do just that with a project in Lost Hills that would take up to 700,000 barrels a day of produced water -- the highly saline fluid that flows up wells along with oil -- and recycle it for use in farming.
Although the company has not yet settled on what water treatment technology to use, he said it is in talks with Occidental Petroleum Corp. and other local oil producers about accepting produced water from their operations in the area.
Another speaker said California would do well to learn from Texas and other states whose approach to oilfield water use and reuse has been shaped, successfully, by drought.
"By golly, it can be done," Laura Capper, an advisor to EIG Resources who has been working on the issue since 2007.
Capper emphasized, however, that water in different oil regions contains impurities that require specific processes, and that no single solution can be applied everywhere.
In a hopeful note for Kern oil producers, she noted that brackish water appears to hold particular promise as a base for fracking fluid. She said she didn't see why the industry doesn't use it more frequently, adding that oilfield service giant Halliburton plans to make greater use of saline water.
Even as she forecast increased industry reliance on water recycling, Capper pointed to substantial barriers to more widespread adoption of the practice. These include "classic reluctance to change," rigidly segregated budgets within oil companies and a long learning curve.
The event at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Bakersfield is scheduled to conclude Thursday.