January 12, 2017

$500,000 USDA grant awarded for oilfield wastewater research launched by Energy Research Seed Fund

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

Contact: Tim Lucas, 919/613-8084, tdlucas@duke.edu; or Braden Welborn, 919/613-0436, braden.welborn@duke.edu

DURHAM, N.C. – Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke University, has received a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to lead a multi-year project evaluating the potential human health impacts and sustainability of using produced water from oilfields to irrigate crops.

The research will focus on the use of the wastewater on agricultural lands in California's Central Valley.

Significant amounts of produced water are generated each year from oil wells in California. This water, which is comprised primarily of naturally occurring brines extracted from deep underground with oil, has been used to irrigate crops in water-scarce parts of California for several years now. However, there are concerns about whether the salts, heavy metals, and naturally occurring radionuclides in the water could over time cause soil to become too saline or sodic to support agriculture.

Concerns have also been raised about the human health impacts of consuming food irrigated with this water.

To find answers, Vengosh and the NIFA-funded team – which includes Erika Weinthal, professor of environmental policy at Duke, and researchers from RTI International, the Pacific Institute and California State University-Bakersfield – will conduct a multi-year study to monitor waters, soils and crops on farms with a history of using the produced water.

The team will then use modeling and risk assessment techniques to determine likely impacts on human and environmental health.

Their findings could be used to inform future policies and practices in California and other areas where water is scarce.

Vengosh is widely cited for his studies on the environmental and water-quality impacts of oil and gas production. He is a faculty member at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment.

His new California-based study was launched with seed funding from the Duke Energy Initiative.  

"Our seed fund supports promising ideas in their early stages that tap the best of Duke's expertise in energy-related research—and cultivate those ideas to attract larger funding opportunities in the future. That is exactly what happened in this case and I am thrilled Avner's research team was able to capitalize on the opportunity," said Brian Murray, interim director of the Energy Initiative and director of the Environmental Economics Program at Duke's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. Murray also holds a faculty appointment as research professor of environmental economics at the Nicholas School.