Turning Water into Oil
HydroWatch system monitors water used in oil shale drilling
America’s need for energy continues to cause concerns for politicians and consumers as well as those who pull oil and gas from the earth. Demand for these natural resources continues to rise while prices fluctuate wildly and the uninterrupted availability of foreign oil remains uncertain.
Fluctuations in supply and rising prices have driven oil and gas suppliers in the U.S. to focus more on domestic supplies. That’s prompted dramatic increase in hydraulic fracturing, often called fracking.
Water is one of the key requirements for fracking. Millions of gallons of water are pumped into wells drilled in shale fields, breaking the shale so oil and gas can be extracted. Fracturing was once a costly technique, but improvements in fracking have lowered costs while prices for oil and gas have risen
That’s led more drillers to mine America’s vast resources. For example, the Marcellus Shale Formation in the eastern U.S. has well over 1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Some researchers say that’s enough to satisfy as much as two years of America’s total consumption. Getting this gas out of the earth takes a lot of water.
“Fracturing takes five to six million gallons of water per well. We’re working on one site that has six wells on one pad, so you’re talking about a lot of water,” says Len Crawford III, president of Crawford Technical Services.
CTS provides these drillers with HydroWatch, a system that keeps track of the water drillers use. The Hershey, Pa.-based company works with more than 20 major firms that do oil shale drilling and fracturing in the Marcellus Shale region.
Many of the drilling sites are in Pennsylvania. When water gets to those worksites, it is mixed with sand and chemicals before it’s injected into the earth.
Much of the water comes from wells, streams, and lakes. The latter two are monitored by the Susquehanna River Basin Commission. The SBRC constantly monitor water quality, and the EPA also checks environmental issues for many of the sties associated with fracking.
Some of this water is carried to oil and gas wells by pipelines. HydroWatch is monitoring several pipelines, some as long as 50 miles. Sensors monitor pressure in the pipeline, letting operators know when there are problems with pumps or leaks in the line, among other things.
When pipelines aren’t feasible, water is carried by trucks that carry 4,500 to 5,000 gallons of water. When drivers bring trucks into the facility, they must log in to say who they are and how much water they are moving.
“Truck drivers go to the HMI and tell it who they’re hauling for, the truck number and the number of gallons they’re handling,” Crawford says. When they finish, they enter the time and other tracking data.
This system also has a backup that helps make sure drivers are logging in correctly. The security cameras provide a foolproof backup when drivers enter their identification numbers to carry water out. They capture images of the truck’s license plate and mark them with a time stamp.
Though most of the water comes from three main founts, wells, lakes and streams, HydroWatch is also used to monitor water from an unusual source. The Sugar Hollow Trout Hatchery in Tunkhannock, Penn., sells millions of gallons of overflow water to one of the oil and gas companies. Previously, this water was discharged into area streams. With HydroWatch, plant managers and owners can readily check operations and make sure all temperatures and pressures are correct in the hatchery tanks. The system also checks the amount of water that’s being sold and monitors pressure of all lines to make sure equipment is working correctly.
HydroWatch is based on Siemens Step 7 hardware, coupled with a full color graphical user interface. WinCC SCADA software is the basis of the software offerings. It’s augmented by a Web navigator that provides remote access. Other programs from a range of suppliers provide full functionality for full system monitoring.
“The thing about this software is that we can integrate any third party software,” Crawford says. “We’ve integrated a security suite and we’ve got software that monitors sensors. Whenever anything happens in security or the areas monitored by these sensors, alarms can immediately be sent out to the proper systems and people.”
Security is an important issue since fracking has been criticized by some environmentalists. Cameras located around water sources and pipelines help prevent intruders from damaging equipment or polluting the water.
After water has been pumped into the earth to create fractures and free up gas or oil, it’s reclaimed and treated. Though most of it is reused for further fracking, some of it is filtered before it’s pumped back underground where it undergoes natural filtering with other groundwater.
“I wouldn’t drink water straight out of the Susquehanna. But I would drink the treated water,” Crawford says.
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