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

Related Articles

US Forest Service takes no stance on fracturing in national forest


The US Forest Service has dropped a proposal that would have banned hydraulic fracturing in the George Washington National Forest.

Frac ban exemption made in Broomfield

12/12/2014 A Colorado District Court judge has ruled that a hydraulic fracturing ban in Broomfield, Colo., does not apply to an operator that entered into an ...

OSHA seeks to limit silica exposure for oil workers, Proposed rules target frac sand mining, fracturing

12/12/2014 The rapid growth in oil and gas production from shale and tight oil formations in the US is generating a boom in a related industry: frac sand. San...

Study links methane contamination in water wells to poor well construction-not fracing-in Marcellus

12/12/2014 A new study found that fugitive gas contamination at eight clusters of water wells in the Marcellus and Barnett shale regions might be linked to we...

Weak crude prices could threaten Bakken production growth

12/12/2014 Bakken shale production set another record in August, but weakening crude prices and flaring reduction efforts threatened to temper production grow...

Husky reports start of steam operations at Sunrise oil sands project


Husky Energy, Calgary, reported the start of steam operations at the in situ Sunrise Oil Sands Project in northeastern Alberta.

TAEP: TPI still peaking, but ‘contraction unavoidable’ as oil prices fall

12/12/2014 The Texas Petro Index (TPI), a composite index based on a comprehensive group of upstream economic indicators released by the Texas Alliance of Ene...

US needs more data before ending crude export ban, House panel told

12/11/2014 Much more environmental impact information is needed before the US can reasonably remove crude oil export limits, a witness told a House Energy and...

BOEM raises offshore oil spill liability limit to $134 million

12/11/2014 The US Bureau of Ocean Energy Management increased the liability limit for oil-spill related damages from offshore operations to $134 million from ...

White Papers

What is System Level Thermo-Fluid Analysis?

This paper will explain some of the fundamentals of System Level Thermo-Fluid Analysis and demonstrate...

Accurate Thermo-Fluid Simulation in Real Time Environments

The crux of any task undertaken in System Level Thermo-Fluid Analysis is striking a balance between ti...

6 ways for Energy, Chemical and Oil and Gas Companies to Avert the Impending Workforce Crisis

As many as half of the skilled workers in energy, chemical and oil & gas industries are quickly he...
Sponsored by

AVEVA NET Accesses and Manages the Digital Asset

Global demand for new process plants, power plants and infrastructure is increasing steadily with the ...
Sponsored by

AVEVA’s Approach for the Digital Asset

To meet the requirements for leaner project execution and more efficient operations while transferring...
Sponsored by

Diversification - the technology aspects

In tough times, businesses seek to diversify into adjacent markets or to apply their skills and resour...
Sponsored by

Engineering & Design for Lean Construction

Modern marketing rhetoric claims that, in order to cut out expensive costs and reduce risks during the...
Sponsored by

Object Lessons - Why control of engineering design at the object level is essential for efficient project execution

Whatever the task, there is usually only one way to do it right and many more to do it wrong. In the c...
Sponsored by

Available Webcasts

The Future of US Refining

When Fri, Feb 6, 2015

Oil & Gas Journal’s Feb. 6, 2015, webcast will focus on the future of US refining as various forces this year conspire to pull the industry in different directions. Lower oil prices generally reduce feedstock costs, but they have also lowered refiners’ returns, as 2015 begins with refined products priced at lows not seen in years. If lower per-barrel crude prices dampen production of lighter crudes among shale plays, what will happen to refiners’ plans to export more barrels of lighter crudes? And as always, refiners will be affected by government regulations, particularly those that suppress demand, increase costs, or limit access to markets or supply.


On Demand

Oil & Gas Journal’s Forecast & Review/Worldwide Pipeline Construction 2015

Fri, Jan 30, 2015

The  Forecast & Review/Worldwide Pipeline Construction 2015 Webcast will address Oil & Gas Journal’s outlooks for the oil market and pipeline construction in a year of turbulence. Based on two annual special reports, the webcast will be presented by OGJ Editor Bob Tippee and OGJ Managing Editor-Technology Chris Smith.
The Forecast & Review portion of the webcast will identify forces underlying the collapse in crude oil prices and assess prospects for changes essential to recovery—all in the context of geopolitical pressures buffeting the market.


Optimizing your asset management practices to mitigate the effects of a down market

Thu, Dec 11, 2014

The oil and gas market is in constant flux, and as the price of BOE (Barrel of Oil Equivalent) goes down it is increasingly important to optimize your asset management strategy to stay afloat.  Attend this webinar to learn how developing a solid asset management plan can help your company mitigate costs in any market.


Parylene Conformal Coatings for the Oil & Gas Industry

Thu, Nov 20, 2014

In this concise 30-minute webinar, participants have an opportunity to learn more about how Parylene coatings are applied, their features, and the value they add to devices and components.


Careers at TOTAL

Careers at TOTAL - Videos

More than 600 job openings are now online, watch videos and learn more!


Click Here to Watch

Other Oil & Gas Industry Jobs

Search More Job Listings >>
Stay Connected