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Conceptual model to assess water use associated with the life cycle of unconventional oil and gas development

March 15, 2018

As the demand for energy increases in the United States, so does the demand for water used to produce many forms of that energy. Technological advances, limited access to conventional oil and gas accumulations, and the rise of oil and gas prices resulted in increased development of unconventional oil and gas (UOG) accumulations. Unconventional oil and gas is developed using a method that combines directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing techniques, allowing for greater oil and gas production from previously unrecoverable reservoirs. Quantification of the water resources required for UOG development and production is difficult because of disparate data sources, variable reporting requirements across boundaries (local, State, and national), and incomplete or proprietary datasets.

A topical study was started in 2015 under the U.S. Geological Survey’s Water Availability and Use Science Program, as part of the directive in the Secure Water Act for the U.S. Geological Survey to conduct a National Water Census, to better understand the relation between production of UOG resources for energy and the amount of water needed to produce and sustain this type of energy development in the United States. The Water Availability and Use Science Program goal for this topical study is to develop and apply a statistical model to better estimate the water use associated with UOG development, regardless of the location and target geologic formation. As a first step, a conceptual model has been developed to characterize the life cycle of water use in areas of UOG development.

Categories of water use and the way water-use data are collected might change over time; therefore, a generic approach was used in developing the conceptual model to allow for greater flexibility in adapting to future changes or newly available data. UOG development can be summarized into four stages: predrilling construction, drilling, hydraulic fracturing, and ongoing production. The water used in UOG production can be categorized further as direct, indirect, or ancillary water use. Direct water use is defined as the water used for drilling and hydraulic fracturing a well and for maintaining the well during ongoing production. Indirect water use is defined as the water used at or near a well pad. The water used for dust abatement also is considered an indirect use but may be applied away from the well pad. Ancillary water use is defined as the additional local or regional water use resulting from a change (for example, population) directly related to UOG development throughout the life cycle that is not used directly in the well or indirectly for any other purpose at the well pad.

The conceptual model presented in this report consists of five elements: (1) input data, (2) processes, (3) decisions, (4) output data, and (5) outcomes. The input data requirements for estimating water use associated with UOG development are somewhat onerous, and obtaining suitable datasets can be challenging because local, State, and Federal agencies do not collect data similarly. The quality of a water-use assessment that uses the conceptual model presented in this report is dependent on the quality and quantity of data that are available for a UOG play. The conceptual model can be used for an assessment with sparse data; however, having sparse data likely will result in greater uncertainty in the water-use estimates.

The conceptual model presented in this report is designed to be robust to characterize and simulate the data processing to estimate water use associated with UOG development. Although the results of an analysis that includes missing data have greater uncertainty, the analysis still can be insightful because it can establish a baseline estimate of UOG water use that may be refined further as more data become available. Analysis of models that include missing data also could aid in identifying the data most needed for future water-use estimates. Characterizing individual model limitations is important because the conceptual model can be used in future water-use studies to facilitate data compiling, data processing, estimating, and assessing UOG activities regardless of location.