Oil Production and the Drought: We Get It

**NOTE: A version of this post originally appeared on the Western States Petroleum Association blog.

California is in the midst of the worst drought on record, a crisis that promises to bring major hardship and change to every sector of the state’s economy and has already placed many communities and farmers at risk.

Earlier this week, Governor Jerry Brown announced legislation providing $687 million in relief aimed at providing “immediate funding for drinking water, food, housing, and assistance for water-conserving technologies.”

As the nation’s third biggest producer of crude oil, California plays an important role in keeping the state’s economy and population on the move and thriving.  But that doesn’t mean it gets a pass when it comes to adapting to drought conditions.

Oil companies are doing their part to conserve, recycle and reduce the water they use to produce oil and refine petroleum products.  Understanding how they are doing that requires a short course on water and oil.

Oil production in much of California is a process of bringing millions of barrels of oil from deep underground and separating out the relatively small amount of oil that comes up with it.  According to the California Department of Conservation, the 197 million barrels of oil we produced in California in 2012 came out of the ground with 3 billion barrels of water.

Some of that water was very poor quality and was re-injected back into the ground from whence it came.  But much of it was used in the processes necessary to extract oil from California’s mature oil fields like steam injection and water flooding.  The vast majority of the water used in those processes comes from treating and recycling produced water – thereby eliminating the need to purchase water that is otherwise available for farms and families.

In some areas of the state, produced water is clean enough that it can be treated and made available to farmers – making oil production a net water provider rather than a consumer.

Oil companies also are taking immediate steps to respond to California’s drought.  Santa Maria Pacific in Santa Barbara County recently announced plans to build an 8-mile pipeline bringing treated municipal water to its production site for use in oil production. Once built, the pipeline will be given to Santa Barbara County and can be used to bring recycled water to other customers along its route.

These kinds of innovative responses to California’s water challenges reflect the oil industry’s experiences over more than 100 years in the San Joaquin Valley and elsewhere.  It’s why the industry has been and remains a partner with the state’s agriculture sector even during times of drought.

One other thing you should know about oil production and the drought: Hydraulic fracturing does not use large volumes of water, at least not in California.  All of the hydraulic fracturing that occurred last year used less than 300 acre feet of water, according to the California Department of Conservation.  That’s about the same amount of water needed to keep two West Coast golf courses green.

The Department of Conservation also found that California uses “much less water” and fluid than other states where hydraulic fracturing is currently underway. Strict standards ensure that proper well casings are in place to protect surface and fresh water.

We continue to hear that hydraulic fracturing should be banned during the drought because it uses “millions of gallons of water per frack job,” a statement that is demonstrably not true. Jay Lund, Director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis agrees:

My impression is that the quantity of water used is really very small.

There are reasons to be concerned about fracking’s effect on groundwater, but on the quantity side I’m not too worried about it. In terms of the argument that the state should block fracking to save water. You want to spend your effort on the places where you’re going to save the most water at the least cost.

You should go after problems that really matter and not go after the de minimis things where it’s rhetorically convenient.

To put water use in perspective, the average hydraulic fracturing job in California uses less than 130,000 gallons – a fifth of the water needed to fill an Olympic size swimming pool.

Water, like energy, is a precious and finite resource.  We commend Governor Brown and the Legislature for Wednesday’s “call to action” and will continue to do our part to mitigate this crisis. The oil industry, like every other industry, business and individual in California, has an obligation to use water smartly and to look for every opportunity to conserve.

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