The American landscape is dotted with more than 100,000 deep injection wells that are a key part of the energy infrastructure. Without them, you probably wouldn't be able to fill up your tank. Because for every barrel of oil that comes out of the ground, salty and sometimes chemically-laced fluid comes up with it. This so-called produced water has to go somewhere. Much of it is injected back into the earth.
Justin Haigler is the head of Black Bison, a Wyoming wastewater disposal company. He was setting my expectations low as we drove to a wellhead. One of his partners, James Schaffner, agreed: “Prepare to be underwhelmed.”
We pulled up to a small, unassuming hut. But you can hear its pressurized insides whirring yards away
"1,700 psi, that’s the pressure we’re injecting at," Haigler said.
The three-foot-tall wellhead has a big job. Nearly 2 miles below, Haigler explained, a narrow pipe shoots wastewater into a subterranean cavity.
In 2013, Colorado and Wyoming together produced around 128 million barrels of oil and a little more than 2.4 billion barrels of water. So for every barrel of oil, that was around 19 barrels of water. Some of it is naturally occurring in underground rock formations, and some is a product of the hydraulic fracking process itself. The problem is, in the oil boom of the last few years, it has all happened so quickly.
"They get here," Haigler said, "and everybody is excited and they have enough bandwidth to do the drilling and they go for it, and then they wonder, where are we going to put the water, by the way?”
Companies like Black Bison have stepped in to fill that need. During the boom, water trucks would sometimes line up 15 deep to unload.
Things have changed with oil prices in freefall. So now might not seem like the best time to get into the business. But T-Rex Oil believes the timing is just right.
“The first thing I wanted to show you," T-Rex geologist Marty Gottlob said as he pulled out a big map of the West. "Here’s Sioux County, our water well is located right up here.”
T-Rex has applied for an injection well permit in Sioux County, Nebraska. It's a brand new company, with no track record in the wastewater business, and is still in the process of raising money.
“Its like the stock market," Gotlob said. "Buy low, sell high.”
With oil prices down, rigs, equipment and workers become available, and cheaper. And wastewater disposal is BIG business. The Boston-based water consulting firm Bluefield Research estimates the U.S. hydraulic fracturing industry spent more than $6 billion in 2014 on water management.
Back at Black Bison’s unloading station, Haigler said, "We turn on our pumps and basically draw the fluids out of our trucks." Hundreds of barrels of wastewater rush through a hose into a series of pipes and tanks where it is filtered, pressurized and then injected.
The Black Bison guys compare the role of this process to our food supply.
“Like the farmer's tractor," Haigler said. "It might seem unimportant driving by on the highway, but its super critical. Without it, the green beans don’t get to the grocery store.”
In that analogy, I think green beans are oil or gasoline. So, here’s the thing: we want and need the fuel, and injection wells are the most common way to dispose of this salty water. But as their numbers continue to grow, so do concerns about their consequences.