EPA to develop unconventional gas production wastewater rules

The US Environmental Protection Agency announced that it will develop standards for handling wastewater generated during coalbed methane and shale gas production. No comprehensive set of national standards exists for such activities, and EPA will begin the process of developing a proposal with input from producers, public health officials, and other stakeholders, the agency said.

“The president has made clear that natural gas has a central role to play in our energy economy,” EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said on Oct. 20 as she announced the agency’s plans. “That is why we are taking steps…to make sure the needs of our energy future are met safely and responsibly.”

Officials from oil and gas industry groups said they looked forward to reviewing EPA’s proposals. Reid Porter, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, said API has several water management guidelines among its industry-developed standards and practices.

“This current system of regulation already accounts for the fact that there is wide variability in the volume, regional environmental conditions, and available management methods for produced water, and the state regulators…are highly involved,” he said.

EPA said it is developing proposed regulation because recent production technology improvements, particularly for shale gas, have increased drilling nationwide. Production from shale formations has grown from a negligible amount a few years to 15% of total US gas production, and is expected to triple in coming decades, it indicated.

“The sharp rise in domestic production has improved US energy security and created jobs, and as with any resource the [Obama] administration is committed to ensuring that we continue to leverage these resources safely and responsibly, including understanding any potential impact on water resources,” it said.

Wastewater from shale gas extraction is prohibited from being discharged directly into any US water body, according to EPA. It said that while some is reinjected or reused, a significant amount still needs to be disposed. “As a result, some shale gas wastewater is transported to treatment plants, many of which are not properly equipped to treat this kind of wastewater,” it said, adding that it will consider standards for the wastewater to meet based on demonstrated, economically achievable technologies before it is transported.

Coalbed methane wastewater is not subject to federal regulation surrounding its discharge into waterways or pretreatment requirements, the agency continued. Regulation is left to individual states, it said.

EPA said it will consider uniform national standards because of information it has received, including state-supplied wastewater sampling data, of pollutants entering surface waters because of inadequate treatment at facilities. It said that it plans to gather data, consult with stakeholders, and seek public comments on a proposed rule for CBM water in 2013 and for shale gas in 2014. EPA said that the CBM timetable is shorter because it has already gathered extensive data and information about it.

Associations respond

Other oil and gas associations responded to EPA’s announcement. Dan Whitten, a spokesman for America’s Natural Gas Alliance, noted that wastewater disposal already is regulated by states, and that ANGA believes that state regulatory professionals are best qualified to assess the unique characteristics of shale plays in their regions and the appropriate water disposal requirements associated with their production.

“EPA regularly updates the list of effluent limitations guideline rulemakings under way,” he told OGJ in an e-mail. “Today's updated list signals the opening step in a process to develop federal regulations for wastewater associated with shale gas and coal bed methane extraction. We are already in contact with the agency and expect to be an active and vocal stakeholder in helping them determine what, if any, additional regulation is necessary and appropriate.”

Independent Petroleum Association of America Pres. Barry Russell said EPA’s unconventional gas production wastewater plans are part of its ongoing responsibilities under the Clean Air Act, and that states will then use guidelines that are developed to regulate specific wastewater discharges.

“As EPA notes, wastewater from shale gas development cannot be discharged into waterways, and the underground disposal of wastewater has been federally regulated by the EPA for nearly four decades,” Russell continued. “Moreover, no wastewater resulting from shale gas development is currently discharged untreated into surface waters. This is why the oil and gas industry continues to increase the amount of wastewater that it recycles, improving from near 0% just a few years ago to nearly 100% in the Marcellus shale.”

EPA’s announcement also came as an industrial water handling company executive said regulations need to reflect the characteristics of each producing area and field. “The feelings are much stronger in the Northeast than in Texas and Oklahoma,” Brent Halldorsen, chief operating officer of Fountain Quail Water Management, said during a US Energy Association (USEA) seminar on the Marcellus shale.

Halldorsen, who was not aware of EPA’s announcement as he spoke at USEA headquarters, said that states with little previous oil and gas experience were catching up quickly as interest grows in shale plays within their jurisdiction. Producers themselves have come a long way, he added.

“Water used to be an afterthought to many of them,” he explained. “That’s changed now. Every company that we deal with has a water manager.” Although most producers’ water questions involve drilling, flow-back, and produced water, the latter has the most potential problems because it has additional constituents and must be handled after production has shut down, Halldorsen said. “The water is highly variable. Each well is different. There may be fluids that have been down there for centuries that need to be dealt with,” he said.

One major environmental organization welcomed EPA’s announcement. “EPA's decision today to pursue pretreatment standards for flowback water from frac sites is good news for the health of our communities and the environment,” said Deb Nardone, director of the Sierra Club’s Natural Gas Reform Campaign.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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