Activists: EPA should set new discharge standards for drillsites

Eric Watkins
OGJ Oil Diplomacy Editor

LOS ANGELES, Apr. 29 -- Activist organizations are urging the Environmental Protection Agency to expand regulation of wastewater discharges from the oil and gas drilling industry to cover a host of exploration, stimulation, and extraction activities, according to Water Policy Report.

Arguing that expanded development and increased use of chemicals during extraction are raising new concerns for water quality, the activists say emerging water pollution problems associated with these activities, especially horizontal hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, have revealed significant shortcomings in EPA's effluent limitations guidelines (ELGs) for the oil and gas extraction sector.

However, industry sources told WPR—a Washington publication covering EPA's water quality and drinking water programs—that new standards would be unnecessary and ineffective. New national standards are unsuitable because wastewater varies greatly depending on regional geology, and permit writers would have to revert to their current case-by-case analysis anyway, one industry source said.

Earthjustice, a nonprofit public interest law firm specializing in proenvironmental litigation, and a host of environmental groups, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and Waterkeeper Alliance, are urging the EPA to set new wastewater discharge standards for oil and gas development, according to early April comments on the agency's final 2008 ELG program plan.

EPA is considering creation of a new ELG for wastewater from coalbed methane extraction and is collecting information on so-called produced water discharges and treatment technologies.

However, environmentalists argue the agency should create more expansive wastewater discharge standards "rather than focusing the ELGs narrowly on the regulation of wastewater discharges from coalbed methane extraction."

The activists recommend: setting a pretreatment standard banning wastewater discharges to publicly owned treatment works (POTWs); creating a new subcategory in the centralized wastewater treatment plant ELG to address oil or gas-related wastewaters with a zero discharge limit for the subcategory; and regulating the storage of effluents kept near the wellhead.

Environmentalists say new standards are necessary because oil and gas development is expanding rapidly and because the sector is developing previously uneconomic resources, which may require more aggressive extraction practices.

The groups are especially concerned about the practice of hydraulic fracturing, where water and chemicals are forced into the ground to crack shale formations and release natural gas so it can be extracted.

The environmentalists say banning wastewater discharges to POTWs is necessary because the treatment plants simply dilute the wastewater, rather than treat for the salts, minerals, and fracturing chemicals that may be in the wastewater.

As an example, the groups cite contamination of the Monongahela River in Pennsylvania in late 2008. The river was impaired by total dissolved solids such as chlorides and sulfates, and activists say the state environment department blamed the contamination on the discharge of oil and gas wastewater to POTWs.

Activists are urging EPA to gather and publish information about the chemicals used in fracturing fluid and provide toxicological, epidemiological, and fate and transport data for the chemicals. The groups also seek an ELG to set enforceable best management practices for storage of wastewater near the wellhead.

But industry sources say new standards are not necessary and would not be effective. ELGs are technology-based and are best suited to water treatment systems where the contamination is predictable, one industry source said.

Produced water from oil and gas development, however, varies widely depending on regional geology, the source told WPR. So permit writers would likely have to depart from the ELG technology requirements and use their best professional judgment, which is the standard that permit-writers currently use, the source said.

There is also no need to ban discharges to POTWs, the industry source said. Instead, water treatment plants should determine whether their treatment is adequate to deal with oil and gas wastewater and meet their standards.

A local industry source also raised concerns with the environmentalists' comments, WPR said.

Of the more than 7,000 drilling permits issued by Pennsylvania in 2008, fewer than 300 use hydraulic fracturing, the source said. And the water quality incident in Pennsylvania, which activists say proves POTW treatment is inadequate for drilling wastewater, was actually caused by runoff from abandoned coal mines, the source said.

Hydraulic fracturing has been used since the 1950s, and new ELGs are not necessary because oil and gas wastewater has been handled very well under the current water permitting program, the source said.

Because states like Pennsylvania have been effective in dealing with unique contents of wastewater from the region, the source said, "We don't believe EPA needs to get involved at that level."

Meanwhile, the Department of Energy last week released a report examining the scope of regulatory oversight for shale gas. It commissioned the report from the Ground Water Protection Council, a group representing state regulators of underground injection wells and oil and gas interests.

The report, Modern Shale Gas Development in the United States: A Primer, downplays the potential for environmental harm from increased use of hydraulic fracturing, as well as from extensive horizontal drilling. The report said the latter "has not introduced any new environmental concerns."

Hydraulic fracturing, the report argues, is a "key technology" for the nation's energy supply. There are some challenges for water availability and management, but "innovative regional solutions are emerging that allow shale gas development…while ensuring that the water needs of other users are not affected and that surface and ground water quality is protected," it said.

Rather than encourage new regulation or retraction of the exemptions for hydraulic fracturing under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the report deems the current regulatory structure overseeing the environmental safety of natural gas drilling to be largely safe.

The report notes repeatedly that states, local governments, and tribes may in many instances create more stringent regulations than those federally mandated and examines requirements under the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act.

Further, the report said, "Natural gas will continue to play a significant role in the US energy picture for some time to come," providing around 22% of the nation's energy over the next 20 years.

Contact Eric Watkins at

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