The discovery of the Wellington oil field in 1923 was, by all accounts, explosive news.
“It blew off 67 million cubic feet of gas and burned down the rig,” said geologist Brad Pomeroy, the current owner and operator of the field. With wells producing 1,000 barrels of oil a day, people thought Colorado might evolve into another east Texas. But the Wellington field was fairly unique among Colorado oil plays, created from a Cretaceous marine environment.
Its explosive beginning also yielded a legacy that would lead to significant consequence for the field — an oil-for-water swap that formed a 6-mile-long water reservoir about 4,000 feet below the surface. The aquifer is now inundated by water — lots and lots of water.
“The loss of reservoir pressure (to push the oil to the surface) was dramatic,” said Pomeroy, noting that about a third of the total pressure was lost in the early operation of the field.
“With the early migration of water stranding millions of barrels of oil, water is a real problem for this oil field. It becomes significantly costly to operate, and low oil prices hurt us more” than typical operators, he said.
Pomeroy said he lifts about 99 barrels of water for every barrel of oil, which is several times more than what is typically produced in Colorado oil fields. However, one positive caveat is that the water is fairly clean, especially compared to water produced in the Denver-Julesburg Basin further east.
What has transpired at the field over the last decade was the first beneficial use of such “produced” oil field water in the state, but it is a tale that took a little making.
In 2002, Pomeroy met rancher Richard Seaworth, who was hoping that all that water being produced by the oil wells could benefit his operations. Seaworth was hoping to develop about 60 acres of his more marginal farmland into homes, but he needed water.
“He had a problem and thought maybe the oil field could solve it, and this is a guy who really knows farming, ranching and water,” Pomeroy said.
What neither of them knew at the time, was just how much trouble it would take getting the state to approve of them using all this water.
“We spent a lot of money and time first getting the state engineer’s office to agree this was non-tributary water,” meaning that it didn’t come from, or its loss did not affect, surface waters, Pomeroy said. “This is the Muddy Formation. It’s clearly separated from recharge, by the fact that it’s a mile below ground and separated by a thrust fault.”
“But we were the first guys to come through this door to get it done,” he said. “It took us a little longer than I, as a geologist, thought it would. In the end they said it was the first new source of water in Colorado in 70 years.”
While the water is as clean as anything coming down a river or irrigation ditch, municipalities aren’t lining up to use anything coming out of an oilfield, Seaworth said. Today, most of the water is used for augmenting various water rights, though it has been sold to fracking operations when oil prices were significantly higher than they are today.
However, Seaworth also has producing water wells on his farmland, but well water being used for agricultural purposes is treated much differently than the surface waters municipalities routinely convert for use. Essentially, Seaworth, or any other user, would have to replace the water actually consumed by residential use, which in water law is known as augmentation.
That’s where things could get interesting for nearby municipalities, especially the town of Wellington. Using the surface wells for municipal water would require the water actually consumed to be replaced, but it could be replaced with the produced water from the oil field.
That would create something that has probably also never been seen in Colorado, a municipality that is using well water for its primary supply and reinjecting another source of well water to augment its use. Seaworth and Pomeroy have spoken to town officials at various times about this scenario, but haven’t had any real negotiations at this point.
“We’re drought resistant and we’re pollution resistant,” said Seaworth about his well water, augmented by the produced water.
The main glitch in the plan is that the state only approved of the right while the operation was still producing oil. Pomeroy said that the Wellington field may easily produce for another 100 years or more, but losing the produced water for augmentation could be a disaster that far down the road.
“One of natural allies you would think is the town of Wellington, with the very significant challenges facing it with water,” Pomeroy said. “We could provide an avenue they could readily use.”
But without changes in water law, or at least how the state views this produced water right, Pomeroy said questions remain about how well this right will stand “in perpetuity.”