Environment First Look

Former rodeo clown proposes reusing industry wastewater in Wyoming

Billions of barrels of water a year are wasted after passing through oil and gas fields in Wyoming. Marvin Nash believes that reusing this water for irrigation could solve this problem – if farmers, regulators, and the oil and gas industry can overcome various hangups.

A rig drills an oil well for Rex Energy around 15 miles east of Cheyenne, Wyo. Encore Green, a newly formed agriculture business, plans to repurpose water produced by Wyoming's oil and gas companies to irrigate land.
Mead Gruver/AP/File
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Caption
  • Heather Richards
    Casper Star-Tribune/Associated Press

Marvin Nash once worked as a rodeo clown, galvanizing crowds in ill-fitting overalls and hiding in a barrel from charging bulls. Before his rodeo days, the performer with the Texas drawl spent his youth mucking stalls on ranches. Years later, he cut operating costs for oil and gas firms.

And now he'll need everything he learned from inside the barrel, the oil patch, and the ranch to woo the Wyoming crowd during his next act turning oilfield wastewater into water to irrigate ranchers's crops.

Wyoming's oil and gas companies produced 3.6 billion barrels of water from 2015 to 2016. They disposed that water, laced with contaminants from production, in myriad ways from injecting it back into the ground to filling disposal ponds.

Water – the lifeblood of the arid West – is often rendered useless after passing through the oil fields. Mr. Nash wants to change that.

Nash and his wife Darlene recently poured their life savings into building Encore Green, a mom and pop agriculture business that wants to play matchmaker between ranchers who need water and the oil and gas industry that produces quite a bit of it. Pending permits, the company will take 5,000 barrels of produced water in Laramie County, Wyo., clean it, test it, and use it to water a wheat field on state lands.

In the last year, Nash has pitched his idea before lawmakers and regulators, major oil and gas firms, and local ranchers. He's garnered a loose knit group of curious onlookers and a few partners.

But what he's found is that technology isn't the hurdle for repurposing Wyoming's produced water, the Casper Star-Tribune reported. It's the culture that stands in the way, he said. Operators already have a system of dealing with water, farmers want to protect their crops, and various regulators also each have skin in the game.

The technology and economics are already there to begin reusing water from the oil fields. It's regulations, some say, that need to catch up.

Nash's experiment has come up against that hurdle. The pilot project required state and private permission as well as permits from four state agencies. And it hasn't proved easy to get them.

Tom Kropatsch, deputy oil and gas supervisor at the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said the regulations in place today are up to the task if a venture like Nash's takes hold. And Encore Green will get a permit once the company details which oil and gas operator will provide them with the water, he said.

Still oil and gas industry water disposal decisions are complicated, Mr. Kropatsch said.

"Liability, economics, regulatory, and other factors all overlap when an operator is considering how to properly manage their produced water," he said.

Transportation between sites may be another issue. If produced water is being cleaned up for agriculture, who's responsible for it from one site to another?

"It just takes some agreements to figure that out," said Patrick Tyrrell, the state engineer for Wyoming.

Nash said he learned early on that this issue had to be viewed in light of industry's liability.

So, he's trying to change the way operators think about risk. He's had meetings with a number of players in the state, because cleaning water and handing it back to a rancher for irrigation may be less of a liability than the way companies currently dispose water, he said.

If the oil and gas industry can provide clean water for reuse in agriculture at a cost less than trucking it to a disposal site or building an injection well to put water into an aquifer everybody wins, Nash said, including the ranchers themselves.

Since he was a boy, Owen Gertz has worked a piece of land outside of Cheyenne, Wyo. His three children run cattle on the ranch now. Mr. Gertz runs his own cattle and grows wheat on a patch of state leased land, which Encore Green will conduct its pilot program on.

Gertz said he doesn't see why produced water can't serve agriculture.

Jim Magagna, vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, said Nash's pitch has potential.

The focus on produced water in Wyoming has been negative for some time, particularly after the coal bed methane boom in the Powder River Basin posed a threat to ranchers.

Many ranchers and farmers don't realize that that industry water could be an asset to them, Mr. Magagna said.

This article was reported by the Casper Star-Tribune for the Associated Press.

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