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By Jeffrey Tyson, Scott Energy Technologies LLC

A drilling pad built using Scott’s Firmus Process.

Using the data it has collected to adapt, evolve and innovate, the E&P industry has made tremendous strides in well construction techniques to comply with ever-tightening specifications and requirements. Even with some wastes, there has been substantial growth and innovation in the methods the industry employs to manage some of its waste streams, such as conditioning and re-using drilling fluid and constructing end-to-end water recycling facilities and distribution pipelines.

While the industry has made tremendous progress in many areas to improve production and lower break-even metrics, one area remains where the industry has yet to evolve: drilling waste. The management of this waste stream has not changed in years, which should cause some concern, considering how much the waste itself has changed.

Drilling waste contains numerous chemical constituents that can impact the environment, including chlorides, metals, organics (including hydrocarbons) and inorganic non-metals. Chlorides can be toxic to vegetation and aquatic life and can degrade soil structure. Currently, there is no natural process through which chlorides are removed from the environment. Metals such as arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, selenium, and silver are toxic in sufficient concentrations and can accumulate in the environment. Hydrocarbons and other organic constituents can have a wide variety of impacts, depending on the compounds present in the drilling waste. Various proprietary additives are also present in drilling waste, which generates a certain degree of uncertainty in managing risks and impacts.  When not properly managed, constituents in drilling waste can degrade soil structure, leach into groundwater supplies, run off into streams, adhere to particulate matter in the air and have toxic impacts to vegetation, animals and people (Source: Keller, P.R.  “Evaluating Drivers of Liability, Risk, and Cost While Enhancing Sustainability for Drilling Waste.”  Paper AADE-17-NTCE-085 presented at the AADE National Technical Conference and Exhibition, Houston, TX, April 11-12, 2017).

Drilling waste is a high-volume waste stream, particularly since the proliferation of unconventional wells. In 2014, 392,000,000 barrels of drilling waste was generated in the United States, enough to fill 25,000 Olympic-size swimming pools. Drilling waste from a single unconventional well may contain as much as 170,000 pounds of chlorides, 500,000 pounds of metals and 24,000 gallons of diesel (Source: Keller, P.R.  “Evaluating Drivers of Liability, Risk, and Cost While Enhancing Sustainability for Drilling Waste.”  Paper AADE-17-NTCE-085 presented at the AADE National Technical Conference and Exhibition, Houston, TX, April 11-12, 2017).

There are three primary factors that affect why the industry as a whole hasn’t changed the way it manages its drilling waste. First is the regulatory environment. Because E&P waste is exempt from federal hazardous waste regulations, each state has developed its own set of rules that operators must follow when managing drilling waste. For solid drilling waste, these rules vary – from allowing operators to simply bury the waste on-site, to allowing untreated waste to be spread over large portions of land, to requiring all waste to be disposed of at commercial disposal facilities, e.g. landfills. Each of these methods of disposal has its place and can be done safely if appropriate measures are followed to ensure the protection of the environment. Often, the rules do not account for the variability of the waste itself, or the specific contaminants that may be present. For example, operators may only be required to test for chlorides when landspreading the waste, even though water-based cuttings can contain a significant portion of hydrocarbons and heavy metals. Many of the state regulations were drafted decades ago, prior to many of the innovations in drilling fluid technology, and may not be sufficient to protect human health and the environment. It is the responsibility of each operator to do its due diligence to ensure that its waste is not only being handled in compliance with the rules, but is also protective of human health and the environment. History is riddled with cases of environmental issues that were caused by waste disposal methods that were legal at the time.

Secondly, many companies are hesitant to step out on a limb to try something new, particularly if it is something outside of their wheelhouse. A tremendous focus is placed on being able to drill, complete and produce a well using methodologies that maximize returns. Unfortunately, little attention is paid to managing waste because E&P companies, which are not in the waste management business, are more risk averse when it comes to trying new things regarding waste management.

Drilled cuttings that were used to build a Fermus Process drilling pad.

The final and perhaps the largest factor is cost. If companies aren’t able to reduce cost, they won’t be able to remain profitable. E&P companies are faced with a conundrum when it comes to costs associated with managing wastes. On the one hand, every company needs to control its costs while continuing to comply with regulations. On the other hand, it is still necessary to mitigate risks and limit negative impacts on the environment, regardless of what is legal or costly. Historically, either do the bare minimum to comply with regulations and use the cheapest disposal available or pay a premium to employ more responsible methods. Fortunately, there are ways to eliminate this dichotomy and save money, while also properly managing waste.

The good news is that there is a different method to treat drilled cuttings based on sound scientific principles that involve the sequestration of the environmental contaminants associated with drilling waste. This method uses solidification/stabilization (S/S) technology to recycle drilling waste so that it can be reused to construct lease roads and drilling pads. This method is proven and has been refined over many years of engineering and innovation by a company that specializes in managing drilling wastes. When using this technology, operators can save money because of the construction benefits associated with recycling the waste. Additionally, operators save money on trucking because the S/S process occurs onsite. Operators can achieve these savings when compared with haul-offs, while reducing the risk and liability associated with cuttings.

Jeffrey Tyson began his career with the Florida Department of Transportation as a professional engineering trainee, specializing in construction engineering and inspection. After completion of FDOT’s Professional Engineering Training Program in 2013, Tyson moved to Longview, Texas to become the process controls engineer for Scott Energy Technologies LLC (formerly Scott Environmental Services, Inc.). As the process controls engineer, Tyson has been able to expand on and apply his expertise into waste management and environmental remediation technologies. His research is focused on the chemical and physical sequestration of constituents using solidification and stabilization technology in upstream oil and gas applications. Tyson earned a BS in Engineering from McNeese State University in 2009.