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Drilling an oil or natural gas well generates significant amounts of waste. Management of that waste has been a challenge, even more so amid the need to be more environmentally sensitive with disposal methods.
One company has developed a method for disposal of solid wastes that results in zero discharge and doesn’t require landfill disposal. In fact, it named itself “Return Disposal,” because it returns waste back to where it originated.
“The technology we use is called slurry fracture injection,” said Toben Scott, Return Disposal president.
He said the technology has been around since the 1980s, invented by M-I-Swaco in conjunction with Phillips 66 for their North Slope operations.
“In a harsh environment like the North Slope (or) in pristine environments, you can’t dump oil-based cuttings onto the tundra or truck them to Anchorage,” said Scott. And, he added, it’s cost-prohibitive to fly out the cuttings. So, the two companies devised a way to “slurrify” the waste and inject it into pre-engineered disposal intervals.
Scott, who began his career with Phillips in Houston, read about the technology in a company newspaper and its use in Bohai Bay, China, in 2000. Seventeen years later, after striking out on his own, he developed a relationship with the Chinese company that had worked with Phillips on the Bohai Bay project.
The two companies formed a joint venture to use the Chinese technology to dispose of “slurrified” waste into his company’s saltwater disposal wells.
Scott categorizes solid oil field waste in two ways: West solids, which include oil-based muds, water-based muds and tank bottoms that arrive in vacuum trucks or pipelines, and dry solids, which arrive in end-dump trailers. While Return Disposal can handle both, he said handling wet solids dominate his business.
Traditionally, that waste has been disposed of in landfills or what are known as land farms, he noted. The company mechanically processes the waste into finer and finer particles until they can be injected into a traditional disposal well whose wellbore has been constructed for disposal. A reservoir engineer afterwards ensures the waste was placed with maximum efficiency and economy. Having the reservoir doing so tells the company how the rock is responding, allowing the company to change parameters accordingly, he explained.
“The environmental benefits are huge,” said Scott. “Rather than an unsightly ‘ski hill’ that is a landfill, we can inject the waste 5,000 to 11,000 feet subsurface, essentially where the waste came from.”
Scott acknowledged that growing concerns about the impact of water injection into disposal wells on seismicity also applies to his business because Return Disposal is also injecting fluids. But none of the company’s three facilities at Big Spring, just west of Mentone and 27 miles south of Midland in Upton County – are in seismic-sensitive areas, he said. The Upton County facility was an existing saltwater disposal facility that is being repurposed for slurry fracture injection, according to Scott.
Managing oilfield waste has gotten more complicated and will become more complicated as new regulations are introduced and concerned citizens seek more information about what’s disposed of or oppose disposal near them, said Scott.
Still, he said, “unless there’s a drastic environmental movement, I don’t think land farms will go away. Slurry will grow in popularity and become a larger component of disposal. Its relationship to seismicity is a challenge that will need to be addressed.”
Technology has completely reengineered how the oil field functions, said the former petroleum engineer. It has improved how oil can be produced economically and in an environmentally friendly manner, and technology can also continue to improve how oil field waste is managed, he said.
Mella McEwen is the Oil Editor for the Midland Reporter-Telegram.
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