Refinery Tackles Water Issues

Skid-mounted treatment unit improves water quality and cuts costs

By Mike Jenkins, Progressive Water Treatment

The oil and gas (O&G) industry requires massive amounts of water — the water/oil ratio averages 8:1. Currently, American O&G operations consume 82 billion bbl of water (1,300 times San Francisco’s annual use) and produce more than 2.5 billion bbl of wastewater each year. Now, as in industry more broadly, O&G companies are placing increasing priority on water management and are beginning to look for advanced wastewater-treatment technology to address operational and economic challenges.

Across the U.S., several key factors impact upgrades:

Aging infrastructure and tougher regulations. Without proper infrastructure, industries can’t perform efficiently at scale. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates the country requires an additional $500-billion investment in water infrastructure. Also, environmental concerns are spurring stricter water-disposal regulations to protect natural resources — and, consequently, intensifying the stress on already complicated water-treatment protocols. EPA standards now place the burden of wastewater treatment on businesses rather than local utilities. Numerous facilities now find their existing wastewater-treatment systems can’t keep pace with today’s regulations. As water use is more heavily tracked and increasingly strict wastewater regulations are imposed on O&G facilities, many operators are looking to update treatment systems.

Regional water shortages. Extreme drought also is affecting industrial (and residential) water use in a variety of areas across the country, especially California, where new standards are cropping up to better manage water across the value chain. For example, California Senate Bill 1281, passed in 2015, requires all O&G operators to provide a monthly water-use statement to the state board for approval. As legislation continues to tighten, operators, still dealing with trimmed budgets because of recent low oil prices, are seeking an environmentally friendly water-treatment alternative that won’t break the bank.

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Lack of in-house resources. Purchasing a water-treatment facility or equipment requires a substantial investment of time and resources. Yet, in general, refineries now lack dedicated in-house water managers. Nevertheless, the companies must find the resources to complete water analyses, technology evaluation, scope development, vendor assessment, capital budgeting, and proposal requests and evaluation. In addition, they must perform final design work, equipment fabrication, environmental permitting, field installation and process optimization. By partnering with external experts who engineer, install and operate water equipment and services, facility personnel can better focus their resources on their core business. Outsourcing can help take care of all the tasks related to water treatment in a comparatively short time span. Moreover, the specialists can pinpoint how to maximize onsite treatment, minimizing logistics costs associated with central treatment and disposal.

One Refinery’s Response

A leading oil refinery in East Texas, exemplifies an industrial facility that needed a water infrastructure upgrade. Its aging ion-exchange system had become inefficient and costly to maintain. The system generated waste every two days, and chemical and treatment costs were high. The plant also desired higher-quality water to feed its high-pressure boilers. Besides addressing these concerns, the refinery had to comply with Texas’ strict suspended- and dissolved-solids quality requirements for boiler feed water. So, in December 2015, the refinery decided it was time to update the site’s water treatment.

The municipal water fed into the refinery didn’t meet regulations for maximum contaminant levels and, thus, required pretreatment for use in the boiler system. This refinery’s boiler-feed ion-exchange system required regular regeneration, causing a significant drain on revenue. Not only that, operators had to constantly manage the waste generated from the boiler feed system. The wastewater had to be treated with heavy chemicals before it could be disposed of with the rest of the plant waste. According to analysts at Jefferies & Co., the cost to a site of an industrial water-management process averages $9–$26/bbl of water.

To address these three key concerns, refinery managers outsourced the facility’s new boiler-feed system to Progressive Water Treatment (PWT), a McKinney, Texas-based water services company. To replace the outdated system, PWT designed and installed a large yet compact skid with its reverse osmosis technology that is engineered to comply with regulations, reduce chemical costs and require less overall maintenance.

Engineering Challenges

The site posed space constraints. Installing the treatment system in a hazardous area would double or triple the $1-million+ capital cost for the project. So, instead, PWT designed a system consisting of three complete 250-gpm reverse-osmosis units mounted on one 8- × 23- × 13.5-ft painted steel skid. This enabled the unit to fit in a non-hazardous location in the heart of the plant, thus saving on capital costs for a new building and associated engineering and design labor. Additional process equipment included ion exchange water softeners, multimedia filtration, RO chemical feed systems, and a membrane clean-in-place skid to clean the RO membranes in situ. Thanks to creative engineering, the system has the ability to reuse 100% of the RO wastewater onsite, and offers the option of utilizing the reverse-osmosis reject water as feed for the cooling towers and the reverse-osmosis product as boiler feed water, to improve efficiency and reduce boiler-feed-water costs. PWT manufactured all the equipment involved in the upgrade. To save on capital cost, PWT took advantage of some existing equipment, such as tanks and chemical pumps. The safe and user-friendly system features a programmable logic controller and human machine interface for completely automated control. The skids are easy to access for any necessary repairs and require little manpower to operate, further reducing maintenance and operational costs for the refinery.

Installed in December 2015, the system should enable the refinery to reduce supply costs, improve operating efficiency, decrease maintenance costs, as well as supply consistent high-quality boiler feed water.


MIKE JENKINS is vice president of sales and applications for Progressive Water Treatment, McKinney, Texas. E-mail him at mike@progressivewater.com.

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