MIDLAND, Texas - When the rain stopped falling in Texas, the prairie grass yellowed, the soil cracked and oil drillers were confronted with a crisis. After years of easy access to cheap, plentiful water, the land they prized for its vast petroleum wealth was starting to dry up.
At first, the drought that took hold a few years ago seemed to threaten the economic boom that arose from hydraulic fracturing, a drilling method that uses huge amounts of high-pressure, chemical-laced water to free oil and natural gas trapped deep in underground rocks. But drillers have found a way to get by with less water: They recycle it using systems that not long ago they may have eyed with suspicion.
"This was a dramatic change to the practices that the industry used for many, many years," said Paul Schlosberg, co-founder and chief financial officer of Water Rescue Services, the company that runs recycling services for Fasken Oil and Ranch in West Texas, which is now 90 percent toward its goal of not using any freshwater for fracturing, or "fracking," as it is commonly known.
Just a few years ago, many drillers suspected water recyclers were trying to sell an unproven idea designed to drain money from multimillion-dollar businesses. Now the system is helping drillers use less freshwater and dispose of less wastewater. Recycling is rapidly becoming a popular and economic solution for a burgeoning industry.
The change is happening so swiftly that regulators are racing to keep up and in some cases taking steps to make it easier for drillers to recycle.
Fracking operations require millions of gallons of relatively clean water. Each time a well is drilled, about 20 percent of the water eventually remerges, but it is jam-packed with contaminants from drilling chemicals and heavy metals picked up when the water hits oil. Until recently, that water was dumped as waste, often into injection wells deep underground.
Many companies, each using slightly different technology and methods, are offering ways of reusing that water. Some, like Schlosberg's Water Rescue Services, statically charge the water to allow particles of waste to separate and fall to the bottom. Those solids are taken to a landfill, leaving more than 95 percent of the water clean enough to be reused for fracking.
Other operators, such as Walton, Ky.-based Pure Stream, offer two technologies one that cleans water so it can be reused in the oil patch and another more expensive system that renders it clean enough to be dumped into rivers and lakes or used in agriculture.
States are scrambling to draft regulations for the new recycling systems.
In Texas, requests for recycling permits rose from fewer than two a year in 2011 to 30 approved applications in fiscal year 2012. So the Texas Railroad Commission, the agency that oversees oil and gas operations, revamped the rules in March, eliminating the need for drillers to get a permit if they recycle on their own lease or on a third-party's property.
Commission spokeswoman Ramona Nye said in an email that the new rules are designed to "help operators enhance their water conservation efforts" and encourage recycling.