EPA to Regulate Shale Gas Drilling via Wastewater Standards

back doorThe U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is signaling their intent to continue overreaching their authority by regulating oil and gas drilling in the U.S., violating states’ constitutional rights to do so themselves. The EPA’s “back door” way of regulating hydraulic fracturing (buying them time while they try to regulate it by the front door with their multi-year study of the process), is by controlling the disposal of wastewater produced during fracking. From the EPA’s press release yesterday:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is announcing a schedule to develop standards for wastewater discharges produced by natural gas extraction from underground coalbed and shale formations. No comprehensive set of national standards exists at this time for the disposal of wastewater discharged from natural gas extraction activities, and over the coming months EPA will begin the process of developing a proposed standard with the input of stakeholders – including industry and public health groups. Today’s announcement is in line with the priorities identified in the president’s Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future, and is consistent with the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board recommendations on steps to support the safe development of natural gas resources.

"The president has made clear that natural gas has a central role to play in our energy economy. That is why we are taking steps — in coordination with our federal partners and informed by the input of industry experts, states and public health organizations — to make sure the needs of our energy future are met safely and responsibly,” said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. "We can protect the health of American families and communities at the same time we ensure access to all of the important resources that make up our energy economy. The American people expect and deserve nothing less."

Recent technology and operational improvements in extracting natural gas resources, particularly shale gas, have increased gas drilling activities across the country. Production from shale formations has grown from a negligible amount just a few years ago to almost 15 percent of total U.S. natural gas production and this share is expected to triple in the coming decades. The sharp rise in domestic production has improved U.S. energy security and created jobs, and as with any resource the administration is committed to ensuring that we continue to leverage these resources safely and responsibly, including understanding any potential impact on water resources.(1)

Reaction from Pennsylvania:

Pennsylvania officials say they expect the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines to dovetail with a state request issued in April that gas drillers stop hauling wastewater to unequipped municipal treatment facilities.

But state Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Krancer also questioned whether the EPA rules are necessary, noting that several of the federally overseen facilities also voluntarily stopped accepting wastewater after the DEP request.

"Because of what we did with regulations and our April call [to drillers], it virtually dried up," Mr. Krancer said in an interview.

That increasing federal involvement in drilling regulation has prompted some in Congress, including U.S. Reps. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, and Jason Altmire, D-McCandless, to push back against what they say is a "one-size-fits-all" approach from Washington.

"Pennsylvania has a lot more people to enforce than the EPA does and a lot more understanding of the local topography," Mr. Murphy said. "The DEP is better equipped to do it."

Business groups such as the Pennsylvania Independent Oil & Gas Association echoed that sentiment, noting the local expertise has grown in the commonwealth.

"This is yet another Washington solution in search of a problem, as treated Marcellus water in Pennsylvania is no longer discharged into surface waters," said Kathryn Klaber, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition.(2)

Reaction from West Virginia:

Corky DeMarco, executive director of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas, said any new requirements on frack water sent to treatment plants should not affect Mountain State drillers because they no longer send the briny water to the plants.

Kathy Cosco, spokeswoman for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, previously noted in 2009, state regulators informed wastewater plants that they would need to meet 41 parameters – in addition to those already imposed upon them – in order to accept the water.(3)

Reaction from Ohio:

U.S. Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, bashed the Obama Administration for making it more difficult for companies to create jobs.

"The U.S. EPA’s involvement will only put up more barriers to job creation at a time when our national priority should be getting America back to work," he said.

Tom Stewart, executive vice president of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association, said the Buckeye State has not allowed water treatment plants to accept the briny liquid since 1985, noting it must go to in-ground injection wells or be recycled for continued use.(3)

Reaction from Texas:

"The shale gas revolution is enabling greatly increased production of clean, affordable energy. This production is critical to America’s economic growth, yet this administration is intent on regulating it by any means possible," said Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas.(4)

And finally, a press statement from The Independent Petroleum Association of America:

"We agree with Administrator Jackson that the needs of our energy future should be met safely and responsibly. America’s wastewater has been managed under the federal Clean Water Act in partnership with state regulators since 1972. EPA’s action to develop new standards for these discharges is an ongoing part of its Clean Water Act responsibilities. The new guidelines EPA develops will then be used by states to regulate specific wastewater discharges.

"We stand ready to work with EPA and other stakeholders on the development of these guidelines.

"As the 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. 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 zero percent just a few years ago to nearly 100 percent in the Marcellus shale.

"Most importantly, no wastewater can be discharged without a permit, and until these new guidelines are developed, tight regulation at the state level will continue to allow for the safe and responsible development of America’s shale gas resources, using the same best-available, economically achievable technologies that EPA will use for its new guidelines."(5)

(1) EPA Press Release (Oct 20, 2011) – EPA Announces Schedule to Develop Natural Gas Wastewater Standards/Announcement is part of administration’s priority to ensure natural gas development continues safely and responsibly

(2) Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Oct 21, 2011) – EPA to control fracking fluids disposal

(3) The Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register (Oct 21, 2011) – EPA to Establish Frack Water Standards

(4) Syracuse.com/AP (Oct 20, 2011) – EPA set to regulate hydrofracking wastewater disposal

(5) IPAA Press Release (Oct 20, 2011) – Statement on EPA Announcement on Wastewater Guidelines