New rules possible for Wyoming oil, gas wastewater cleanup

By Mead Gruver, Associated Press

Wyoming environmental regulators are considering possibility of new rules on bonding to avoid having to spend state money to clean up abandoned oil and gas wastewater facilities. The cost would run into several million dollars should the state have to remediate several facilities.

 

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Wyoming environmental regulators are considering possibility of new rules on bonding to avoid having to spend state money to clean up abandoned oil and gas wastewater facilities. The cost would run into several million dollars should the state have to remediate several facilities.

In 2013, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality spent $740,000 to clean up an abandoned commercial oilfield wastewater disposal facility in Sublette County. Such facilities — there are 35 in Wyoming — collect and treat millions of gallons of groundwater produced by oil and gas wells.

Under current rules, wastewater facilities less than 27 years old must be bonded. Eleven older facilities are grandfathered-in under rules that took effect in 1989 and aren't bonded, meaning their owners haven't set money aside to cover cleanup costs.

Cleaning up, filling in and restoring every older oilfield wastewater disposal facility in Wyoming to a semi-natural state could cost between $7.2 million and $9.2 million, according to a DEQ report.

Wyoming doesn't have that kind of extra money to spend right now. Even after budget cuts, the state faces a $156 million shortfall due to a downturn in the fossil fuel business.

Amid worries the downturn could put more oilfield wastewater treatment companies out of business, the DEQ is considering requiring bonding for every facility regardless of age. DEQ officials presented the idea to the Legislature's Minerals, Business and Economic Development Interim Committee on Oct. 10.

Next, they will discuss bonding with the oil and gas industry before possibly drafting new rules, a process that could take up to two years, agency spokesman Keith Guille said.

"This is more of the fact-finding phase," Guille said.

The Petroleum Association of Wyoming supports bonding for all commercial oilfield wastewater disposal facilities and will work with DEQ to help develop the rules, association Vice President John Robitaille said Friday.

Elsewhere in the U.S., petroleum companies often dispose of wastewater from oil and gas production by injecting it deep underground. Scientists have linked wastewater injection with recent earthquakes in Oklahoma.

The wastewater often is tainted with salt, hydrocarbons and naturally occurring radioactive substances that can accumulate in treatment facilities. In the arid West, wastewater sometimes is injected but also goes into evaporation ponds at treatment facilities.

Newer wastewater ponds are built to meet modern requirements and have leak detection equipment. Older ones can be a problem, said Jill Morrison with the Powder River Basin Resource Council, which supports a rule change.

"They're a mess and they're a source of groundwater and soil contamination. And they're not bonded and they're still in use," Morrison said.

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