As wastewater disposal wells in Texas shale plays are reaching capacity, the Trump administration is considering loosening decades-old clean water regulations to allow for the discharge of wastewater directly into streams and rivers — sources of drinking water for many communities.
Technically speaking, drillers are allowed to do this in limited circumstances under federal law, but the process of cleaning salt-, heavy metal- and chemical-laden wastewater to the point it would meet state or federal water standards is so costly that it’s rarely done, experts say.
“Technology is changing. At some point, if your disposal options are limited or it becomes so expensive you’re having to truck water to be disposed of several hundred miles away, companies will do it,” said Jared Craighead, legal counsel to Texas Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton. “It might not make sense today but maybe in a year or two.”
Environmental Protection Agency officials have said they are in “listening mode”, consulting with experts and holding public meetings across the U.S. in an effort to reach a decision on the issue potentially next summer.
The primary question facing the EPA is whether water standards can be adjusted so oil and gas companies can economically treat wastewater to be pumped into the water supply without contaminating drinking water supplies or killing off local wildlife.
In 2016, the EPA banned municipal sewage plants from accepting wastewater associated with hydraulic fracturing after it was discovered that in Pennsylvania, water was sent to plants not equipped to properly clean it. Amid that state’s fracking boom, residents along the Monongahela River in western Pennsylvania were advised to use bottled drinking water.
Environmentalists are concerned that the science around the issue is lacking to the degree that a truly informed decision is unreachable.
“It would be so difficult to (treat the wastewater) because there’s so much we don’t know,” said Nichole Saunders, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund in Austin. “There’s only a handful of research papers. We don’t have approved testing methods. The complicating factor here is there’s not really the science and data to inform EPA.”