Promise of federal standards for natural gas wastewater management on the horizon

This blog post was co-authored by NRDC legal fellow John Wood.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently announced it will develop two standards for discharges of natural gas wastewater into streams and rivers under the Clean Water Act. While NRDC is encouraged that EPA is taking initiative on this crucial issue, these standards are a long time coming, and still a long way from being published. 

First, the EPA said it will develop standards for wastewater produced by natural gas extraction from coalbed methane formations. There are 15 coalbed methane basins across the United States. Coalbed methane formations contain a lot of groundwater, which must be pumped out of the earth to produce the natural gas. The EPA found that approximately 45 percent of all coalbed methane produced water (about 22 billion gallons per year) is discharged directly into surface waters--primarily in Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Montana, Alabama, and Mississippi. This groundwater can be contaminated with various pollutants including salts and metals, and the discharges can erode streambeds and harm aquatic habitat. Despite years of local concern, EPA’s coalbed methane wastewater standards will not be proposed until 2013.

EPA’s second plan is to develop standards for wastewater generated by natural gas production in shale formations. Shale formations are located all across the country. Some portion of used fracking fluid returns to the surface as “flowback.” EPA found that up to one million gallons of wastewater may be produced from a single well within the first 30 days following fracturing, and contains salts many times higher than sea water, pollutants, metals, naturally occurring radioactive material, and fracking chemicals. These substances have the potential to cause cancer, affect human reproductive systems, impair the central nervous system, and cause a raft of other health impacts to humans and animals unfortunate enough to be exposed. Despite plenty of presently available information, EPA is collecting more data and does not plan to release standards for shale wastewater until 2014.

In some states, drilling wastewater has been transported to Publicly Owned Treatment Works (“POTWs”), many of which are not properly equipped to treat this type of wastewater. EPA found that, as a result, pollutants had been discharged into surface waters such as rivers, lakes or streams where they can directly impact aquatic life and drinking water sources. For example, Pennsylvania has allowed hundreds of millions of gallons of gas drilling wastewater to be sent to POTWs which discharge directly into waterways that provide public drinking supplies. Fortunately, Pennsylvania partially banned this practice after a study linked fracking fluid processing at POTWs to increased risks of cervical cancer and birth defects.  EPA should do the same at the national level--for all oil and gas wastewater, not just that from coalbed methane or shale formations.

In response to EPA’s announcement, U.S. Senator James Inhofe  is reported to have stated that the Obama administration has unleashed an unprecedented regulatory assault against the oil and gas sector. The truth is, pretty much any regulatory attention to the environmental impacts of the oil and gas industry would be unprecedented. A handful of states have begun to update rules over the past few years, but for the most part the oil and gas industry has flown under the regulatory radar for decades. Improper discharge of flowback and other forms of wastewater is a serious threat to water quality, but oil and gas waste is the proverbial hot potato that no one has wanted to deal with. That is why NRDC has asked the EPA to write new rules for all oil and gas waste. We are pleased that the EPA is starting by working on rules for wastewater discharged into America’s surface waters, and hope the delay is worth it.