Environmental officials in Texas and other western states are moving ahead on plans to allow oil and gas companies to treat drilling wastewater and discharge it into rivers and streams, even as the Trump administration balks at endorsing the practice amid widespread questions about public health effects.
In a report last month, the Environmental Protection Agency not only outlined concerns from scientists and environmentalists about the toxins in the hundreds of billions of gallons of wastewater produced each year by oil and gas drilling, but also from oil companies themselves.
One large company, the report noted, was troubled by proposals to allow treated wastewater to irrigate crops or get dumped into public waterways, citing “a lack of science around treatment efficacy and associated liability risks.” Companies across the board said that disposal wells that store wastewater underground remain a far cheaper option.
“It doesn’t indicate there’s any pathway forward,” Lee Fuller, vice president of government relations at the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said of the EPA report. “At this point the only real only opportunities for reuse are within the production operations in the field, displacing the fresh water needed for hydraulic fracturing.”
Oil and gas drilling produces up to 10 barrels of contaminated water for every barrel of crude from two main sources: naturally occurring brackish water that comes up the well with oil and gas and the millions of gallons of chemical-laced water that fracking crews pump into each well to release oil and gas from shale. Historically, the wastewater is pumped thousands of feet underground into what are known as injection wells as to not contaminate drinking water.
But with injection wells identified as the cause of earthquakes and some heavily drilled areas, such West Texas, reaching geological limits for storing the wastewater, both the industry and regulators have sought other solutions. Two years ago, EPA began studying whether water treatment technology had reached the point that it could make oil and gas wastewater clean enough for discharge into rivers and streams, prompting expectations the industry-friendly Trump administration would endorse a promising but untested technology.
But the EPA’s decision last month not to endorse the technology left a vacuum. Stepping in are oil-rich states Texas, New Mexico and Oklahoma, all of which had already passed legislation aimed at expanding the reuse of wastewater, known in the industry as produced water, beyond the oil fields.
Last year, the Texas Legislature passed a bill ordering the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to apply to EPA for authority to permit the discharge of oil and gas wastewater into state waterways before September 2021. And despite the EPA report, the agency is moving ahead, said Brian McGovern, a TCEQ spokesman.
“TCEQ’s pursuit of (permitting authority) is not contingent upon any EPA initiative and TCEQ will continue to seek (authority) for oil and gas discharges as required by the Texas Legislature,” he said in an email.
Oklahoma has already applied to EPA for permitting authority, a spokeswoman at the state’s Department of Environmental Quality said. Officials at the New Mexico Environment Department are leading a research consortium to better understand the public health and environmental implications of discharging oil and gas wastewater water, said Rebecca Roose, director of the department’s water protection division.
“We’re interested in seeking (permitting) authorization,” she said, “but we don’t currently have a timeline on that.”
Driving states’ interest is series of droughts in the western United States, which at a time of rising population have raised concerns about the region’s long-term water supply.
Texas suffered under a years-long drought that began in 2010, forcing many cattle ranchers to sell off or kill their herds and forcing cities to enact water conservation orders. One town outside Austin, Spicewood Beach, even reported in it had run out of water and had to truck in water for its 1,100 residents.
With the planet warming due to climate change, scientists have warned drought could become a more regular occurrence in the future.
“The western states are pushing (the treatment of produced water) because they’re looking for any source of water they can get,” said Ellen Gilinsky, a former EPA official who now consults for the Environmental Defense Fund.
Under federal law, the discharge of oil and gas wastewater into rivers and streams is prohibited east of the 98th meridian, which runs north to south just west of Austin. But west of that boundary – historically referred to as “where the West begins” – oil and gas companies can apply to state environmental agencies or the EPA for permits to discharge their wastewater.
So far, few have. Wyoming officials have issued a permit to one local firm, Encore Green Environmental, to take treated oil field wastewater and discharge it onto arid, rocky lands with aims of increasing vegetative growth for the purpose of pulling carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
“This solves more than just the problem of too much produced water,” Encore co-founder Marvin Nash said in a press release earlier this year. “With this method, the arid west can have a new source of clean water that’s publicly available.”
Water treatment technology has improved radically in recent decades, to the point engineers in countries such as Israel can now economically convert sea water into to fresh water. But there is little science showing that the technology can safely treat oil field wastewater, which is not only highly saline – containing up to 10 times more salt than sea water – but also contains a catalogue of chemicals, both naturally occurring and manmade.
Scientists consulted by the EPA warned of “knowledge gaps” around produced water, pointing out that they don’t even have a full catalogue of all the chemicals it contains.
“There’s only a limited number of chemicals in produced water we know the toxicity of. There are so many issues that need to be dealt with before we can even talk about using produced water outside the oil field,” Gilinsky said “Put aside drinking water (for people). What effect does it have on livestock?”
The EPA said it would announce “next steps” for managing oil field wastewater at a future date, but for now the high costs and uncertainty of treating oil field wastewater are unlikely to entice many oil companies to take up the practice.
Still, environmental officials in oil producing states such as Texas appear eager to claim permitting authority under a Trump administration that has steadily dismantled environmental regulations to aid oil and gas and other industries. Environmental officials under Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden might not be so willing.
The belief is a breakthrough in water treatment technology will eventually come, said Todd Staples, president of the Texas Oil & Gas Association.
“We know that continued investment in pioneering technologies and innovations will largely drive accomplishments in this space,” he said.
If and when that happens, energy industry attorneys say, getting permits from state regulators in oil-rich Texas is likely to be far more appealing than going to EPA, with which oil companies have long had an antagonistic relationship.
This article first appeared on the Houston Chronicle – an Energy Voice content partner. For more from the Houston Chronicle click here.