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Environmental Impacts Associated with Disposal of Saline Water Produced During Petroleum Production - Osage-Skiatook Petroleum Environmental Research Project [Completed]

Salt scar downhill from the remains of two brine pits.
Salt scar downhill from the remains of two brine pits at Site A by Skiatook Lake, Okla. Grasses and weeds have partly revegetated the area. Grasses are sparse, however, and only grow where the salt content of the soil is not high.

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Pumping oil and gas out of the ground also produces large volumes of water with undesirable quality known as produced water. Produced water commonly contains large amounts of dissolved salts, hydrocarbons, trace metals, and radionuclides. The United States produces 20 to 30 billion barrels of produced water every year. Much of the produced water is recycled by injecting it into the subsurface to maintain the pressure of oil reservoirs, which enhances oil recovery. An estimated 35 percent of produced water requires disposal because it cannot be recycled.

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Map showing locations of study sites A and B

The most common methods of disposal are injecting produced waterinto the subsurface or evaporating it in disposal ponds. Prior to environmental regulations in the 1970s, produced water was disposed of by whatever was the most economical method. This sometimes included intentionally discharging the water on the ground, which could cause salt scars and surface-water and ground-water contamination. These past practices and current accidental releases of produced water are national issues that concern managers of Native American, Federal, and State lands, as well as oil and gas producers, mineral rights and lease owners, State and Federal regulators, and land owners. A growing concern facing land managers is the potential use of land for farming, housing, or other uses where oil and gas production is no longer active but may have left a legacy of undesirable environmental effects. Scientific studies are needed to evaluate the long-term and short-term effects of the disposal of produced water on soil, ground-water, and streams, and the natural processes that may mitigate the effects.

To address these concerns the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) initiated a multidisciplinary investigation to determine the fate and effects of the disposal of produced water on the near-surface environment. The investigation was a joint project of the USGS's Toxic Substances Hydrology Program and the Energy Resources Program, along with their partners. Field studies were conducted at Skiatook Lake in the southeastern part of the Osage Indian Reservation in northeastern Oklahoma. Results from the investigation helped provide some of the information environmental officials, land managers, petroleum companies, and land owners need to assess human and ecosystem impacts and to develop risk-based corrective actions to clean up contamination from produced water.

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