Although prior research examined the barriers to using other types of wastewaters, studies investigating opinions and public perceptions about using OPW are scarce. OPW has been used for farming for decades in few water districts of Kern County, which produces 70% of California’s oil production (KGET, Sep 23, 2020) but has not seen its widespread use. To unravel the barriers to widespread adoption and the possibility of commoditizing it, the authors conducted interviews to solicit perceptions and opinions of the major stakeholders (which include water districts and state board, oil and gas producers, food producers, entrepreneurs, water professionals, environmentalists, and academics). What strategies would promote the widespread adoption of produced water for irrigation? What are the barriers impeding widespread adoption? What information could assist the general public and other stakeholders within the produced water production/treatment/ distribution/user to effectively promote the reuse of available produced water? The typical assumption is that producers (both food, oil, and gas) are profit-maximizers and choose technologies based on a cost-benefit analysis (Savchenko, Kecinski, Li & Messer, 2019) without due importance to the well-being of consumers, agricultural field workers, or the environment.
The synthesis of the literature is structured in four strands:
- Water shortages and oilfield produced water.
- Technologies available to treat oilfield-produced water and their limitations.
- Use and barriers to use of produced water in irrigation.
- How to overcome those barriers.
4.1 Water shortages and OPW in Kern County:
With a megadrought being predicted this year in California, and Kern County, identifying alternate water streams has assumed paramount importance in agricultural farming. Although reclaimed water has been identified as a viable option for crop irrigation, the lack of public acceptance for foods grown with reclaimed water remains a significant hurdle. Reclaimed water is generated by treating wastewaters of various types such as industrial, black, gray, brackish, and others. Oilfield Produced Water, which is treated wastewater from oil and gas drilling operations, is a type of reclaimed water. If suitably treated, some of the water shortages could be offset by using reclaimed produced water for agriculture. It can be produced consistently in reasonably large volumes (almost 0.2 million acre-ft of water annually while producing oil per CA DOGGR, 2012). As per the study of CALFLOWS (2017), around 150,000 acre-feet per year (3.4 million barrels/day) of produced water is potentially available for reuse in Kern County. Overall, California is the third-highest oil and gas producing state in the USA, and Kern County has 70% of the oil and gas in California. Kern County is also the top agricultural-producing county in the USA, making it an ideal laboratory for the many scientific challenges at the nexus of agriculture, energy, and water.
4.2 Technologies available to treat oilfield produced water, and their limitations
In general, treatment of OPW for reuse involves the removal of oil and grease, dissolved organics, bacteria, suspended particles, dissolved gas, dissolved salts, contaminants, softening, and so forth. The choice of and different stages of technology depends on the quality of the OPW and the choice of the cheapest technology that could achieve the targeted standards. Depending on the location of oil and gas drilling, the produced water quality varies, and so does the treatment technology and its cost. The characteristics of oilfield-produced water depend on the geological formation and location, the lifetime of the reservoir, and the hydrocarbon produced (Fakhru'l-Razi 2009). Depending on the quality and quantity of produced water, different filtration technologies such as walnut shell media filter, ion exchange, dissolved air flotation, reverse osmosis, and so forth are available as traditional treatment plants, modular or mobile water treatment solutions. As per the Produced Water Report: Regulations, Current Practices, and Research Need by the GWPC (Ground Water Protection Council, 2019), there are various technologies available or are being researched and developed at academic, industrial, and governmental institutions. A comprehensive discussion of various technologies available to treat oilfield-produced water could be found in these literatures (Nasiri et al., 2017; Igunnu & Chen, 2014; Veil, 2011; Arthur, Langhus & Patel, 2005).
To suitably treat oilfield-produced water for reuse in irrigation purposes, the concentration of the different components found in this wastewater must be decreased to the given standard limits. Conventional technologies normally target the removal of dispersed contaminants present in the OPW. This could involve a 3-stage separation method involving hydrocyclone, induced or dissolved gas flotation, and nutshell or multi-media filter for the polishing treatment. However, the conventional technologies do not render the treated OPW suitable for beneficial use outside of the O&G industry. Emerging technologies are targeting the removal of dissolved contaminants in the OPW to seize the opportunity of beneficial use (such as agriculture) for the treated produced water. Removal of the dissolved components such as TDS require evaporative technologies which are energy intensive requiring high maintenance, or reverse osmosis which is sensitive to the presence of oil and oxidants. Removal of dissolved organic compounds involve advanced treatment technologies using UV-oxidation, ozone injection, nano filtration and so forth.
One of the first stages to treat produced water is to remove the dispersed and dissolved oil components. Electrochemical oxidation is frequently used for the removal of organic compounds from the OPW as well as disinfecting and killing microorganisms in this water. After oil removal, if the water contains total dissolved solids (TDS) higher than the prescribed limits for agricultural use, reverse osmosis is used to reduce the TDS values as well as reduction of metalloids such as boron. A technology under development is focused on improving the efficiency of the electro-oxidation technology so that presence of organic contaminants in the OPW could be eliminated, which, in turn, would not foul the membranes of the reverse osmosis reactor, if any.
The treatment facilities are varied – centralized, near-field, or mobile treatment units. re are various treatment facilities. Transporting PW to a large central facility is cost-intensive as constituents of PW may be corrosive and or lack transportation infrastructure. A modular distributed network of water treatment plants can save transportation costs. To offset the high cost of small water treatment plants, a byproduct recovery in critical materials extraction will encourage investment in such technologies. Essential materials demand is increasing, and the hi-tech industry is relying on increased imports to meet such demand. Imports bring about their uncertainties in terms of scheduling, transportation, and geopolitical events.
Extracting critical materials using modular processing units and distributed water treatment facilities seems like a good fit to solve both problems. In a study, M Yang et al. (2018) developed detailed process simulation models for shale gas processing and methanol manufacturing with different scales using raw shale gas extracted from the Marcellus, Eagle Ford, and Bakken shale plays. Techno-economic analyses and environmental impact analyses were conducted for the four shale gas monetization options to systematically compare their economic and ecological performances based on the same conditions. The results show that modular methanol manufacturing is more economically competitive than conventional shale gas processing. Besides, modular methanol manufacturing is better than large-scale methanol manufacturing for raw shale gas produced from distributed, remote wells from economic and environmental perspectives. Transportation costs sometimes offset the cost savings that come from the economy of scale of a large installation. A modular design of a critical material extraction process and a distributed water treatment approach is better financially. It also brings about economic revitalization and job creation benefits to a broader region.
In sum, the treatment of produced water is costly to businesses. However, in the face of severe water scarcity, there is an imminent need to develop new technologies to treat it to levels required for crop irrigation. In addition to the infrastructure requirements' monetary cost, there is an emotional or psychological cost of using produced water for growing foods. The reluctance to use oilfield-produced water could be partially due to the "disgust factor" associated with the use of recycled wastewater, which reflects the risk and image liabilities of water that could contain higher concentrations of hydrocarbons, heavy metals, and other pollutants. It could also be due to cognitive limitations to viewing produced water as a product independent of its origins. Alternatively, it could be due to uncertainties surrounding the long-term economic and social consequences of produced water usage. Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to identify the reasons for resistance to the widespread adoption of produced water in the California agricultural sector.
4.3 Barriers to use oilfield produced water:
Rogers (2003) outlined four types of risk barriers or resistance to adopt to any product innovation across industries (Korjonen-Kuusipuro et al., 2017; Kuisma, Laukkanen & Hiltunen, 2007) as shown on Fig. 2 and described in detail below:
4.3.1 Psychological Barrier.
This has to deal with a product’s incompatibility with consumers’ perception of practices or habits. For example, “oi1 is for machines; food is for people.” Research has shown three antecedents that drive consumer rejection of foods grown using any reclaimed water. These are disgust, neophobia, and safety concerns (Savchenko et al., 2019). The policy literature has found that owing to disgust, most people prefer reuse of reclaimed water (not necessarily produced water) for activities that involve little or no human contact (Lease et al., 2014; Kecinski & Messer, 2018). Neophobia is associated with the fear of trying new foods such as genetically modified foods (Townsend 2006). Safety concerns can be another barrier to the use of produced water for irrigating crops. For instance, consumers’ aversion to purchasing potato chips and French fries decreased after rumors spread that these could contain a carcinogenic compound (McFadden & Huffman, 2017). These concerns play a critical role for products that are directly ingested, such as various foods and beverages. These fears could be exacerbated by media or environmentalist groups (e.g., negative backlash following LA Times 2015 news reporting of Chevron’s use of produced water for beneficial uses. Trust in food safety and producing various foods can play an essential role in consumers’ purchase decisions. A study by Fielding et al. (2015) found that trust in authorities such as government agencies was positively correlated to the acceptance of reclaimed water for potable and non-potable uses.
4.3.2 Value or Economic Barrier.
This has to deal with a product’s inability to produce economic- or performance-based benefits. For example, what is the cost-benefit analysis for using produced water for widespread irrigation of crops? OPW production volume in the USA ranges from 7–10 barrels per 1 barrel of oil. In California, it is 5–40 barrels per barrel of oil depending on the location and age of the site. Actions required to maximize the opportunities for beneficial use of OPW are: laws and regulations at the state level that support the beneficial reuse of OPW; improvements in cost-effective technologies to treat OPW to increase feasibility of OPW reuse; entities such as food producers interest to accept the treated OPW; increased transparency for improved relationships amongst various stakeholders in the OPW ecosystem. OPW is considered as a “non-revenue” fluid with treatment costs ranging from $0.05 to .0.30/ barrel and could rise to $5 per barrel if truck transportation is involved. The facilities cost ranges from anywhere between $100–500 per daily barrel of treatment capacity (SPEC Services, Inc.). Any value that could be derived is post-treatment and its suitability for beneficial uses such as irrigation.
4.3.3 Physical Risk Barrier.
This deals with any physical damage that the usage of a product might cause. In the case of produced water use in farming, the risk is that contaminants in the water might hurt the crops, the soil quality and hurt the people who eat those crops.
4.3.4 Social Risk Barriers
to innovative adoption of produced water might have to deal with long-term increases in the willingness of agricultural producers and regulators to “blur the lines” between mineral products and edible products in society.
In reclaimed water, including produced water, the perceived risks of both farmers and consumers are essential. There is no point in farmers growing crops using produced water if the produce is not going to be bought by the consumers and vice versa — consumers cannot buy food products that farmers refuse to cultivate (Po et al., 2005; Menegaki et a1., 2007).