Oil and gas groups want the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to authorize new methods for disposing the billions of barrels of wastewater being generated by the shale drilling boom, over the objections of critics who say some of the waste could end up in streams and lakes.
Oil and gas companies generated 900mn bl of produced water in New Mexico alone in 2017, more than five times as much oil as they extracted that year. The industry across the US injects most of its wastewater underground, but the capacity of disposal wells to keep up is running out in some regions with booming production.
Those constrains have caused industry groups to call on EPA to authorize new disposal options, such as treating wastewater to minimum standards and discharging it to lakes, rivers or sewage plants. Oil and gas should be regulated the same as nearly 60 other industrial categories that are allowed to discharge wastewater this way, they say.
"We see no science-based rationale for why the upstream onshore oil and gas industry should be regulated any differently," the American Petroleum Institute, the Independent Petroleum Association of America and other industry groups said 27 June in comments on an EPA draft study issued earlier this year.
EPA floated the possibility of revising its regulations to allow more disposal options for oil and gas wastewater in that study. States and others were asking if it "makes sense" to inject most of the industry's wastewater underground where it can no longer be used, EPA said, when disposal capacity is limited and water is scarce in parts of the western US.
Environmentalists are strongly opposed to the idea. They worry treatment facilities will be unable to adequately remove enough salt, heavy metals and chemicals from wastewater to make it safe for release back into the environment. And they say discharging large volumes of treated wastewater in otherwise arid regions could alter the environment and harm wildlife.
EPA now enforces a "zero discharge" standard that blocks most onshore oil and gas production wells from treating wastewater on-site and releasing it to surface waters or public water treatment facilities. The oil industry groups said the agency should remove the zero discharge standard or create a new standard for "recovered water."
Pumping oil and gas wastewater underground is usually the cheapest option and generally costs less than $1/bl, the EPA draft study said. But industry officials have told the agency there are some areas where water treatment would be cost-effective, despite exceeding $10/bl in some scenarios, because of high costs of trucking wastewater to disposal facilities.
EPA has not said what its next steps are for the wastewater study.