Industry Weighs In on EPA Wastewater Management Study

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hosted a public meeting this week to review preliminary findings and gather further public comments on its Study of Oil and Gas Extraction Wastewater Management, which is slated to be released in the first quarter of 2019. This meeting served as a critical step in the development of the final report, and an opportunity for the oil and gas industry to discuss its needs and creative solutions to address them.

The United States continues to cement its status as the world’s leading producer of oil and natural gas. Demand for both is expected to increase over the next few decades and management of produced water is anticipated to be a key issue moving forward. The industry continues to excel at finding innovative solutions to manage produced water and improve upon existing options.

EPA’s study seeks to evaluate the best approaches for managing wastewater from onshore conventional and unconventional oil and gas extraction, with the hopes of tailoring any future regulation to the concerns of the public, while maximizing water resources and “continuing to facilitate energy resources critical to our economic growth.”

Currently, about 90 percent of produced water across the United States is injected underground in wastewater disposal wells – a method that has proven safe and effective for decades. But injection is not the only method of disposal; In fact, in states like Pennsylvania, nearly all produced water from unconventional operations – 90 percent on average – is recycled and reused in future wells. The implementation of recycling, reuse, and other disposal options may prove beneficial to areas like the Permian Basin that are facing constraints due to insufficient injection well capacity. This sentiment was echoed by many at this week’s public hearing.

Ken McQueen, New Mexico’s Secretary of the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, spoke to the Permian Basin’s immense growth as well as opportunities to address its overabundance of produced water. He called the Permian Basin, “prolific and one of the world’s most strategically important oil and gas reserves.” According to McQueen, New Mexico currently produces over 168,000 barrels of oil a day, and he estimates that total Permian Basic production will rise to over six million barrels a day by 2025.

“The Permian is, and will continue to be a critical component of our nation and our world energy supply,” McQueen added.

McQueen also believes that the combined scarcity of freshwater and overabundance of industry wastewater creates an opportunity, given the right technology, for this water to be treated and become a supply source that could generate new economic activity for the region.

The great potential for wastewater reuse, beyond the oil fields, was echoed by several other participants. Marvin Nash of Encore Green and Jeff Holder of the Beneficial Water Use Alliance both discussed the potential to reuse wastewater for agricultural demands. Holder remarked that we should refine water, the way we turn crude into gasoline, and create a product ideal for local agricultural needs.

Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) Executive Vice President Lee Fuller echoed the sentiment that utilization of treated wastewater could be advantageous in more arid regions and encouraged the EPA to work with producing states on this issue:

“Treated wastewater from oil and natural gas production could be an important and environmentally beneficial addition to America’s water supply. States are the primary managers of water assets within their boundaries. EPA is opening an assessment of the potential for expanding these assets with treated oil and natural gas wastewater. EPA has the opportunity to provide states the options they need to improve their water assets. IPAA believes that the federal regulators should provide the framework that the states need.”

Bruce Thompson, President of the American Exploration & Production Council (AXPC), also stressed the industry’s commitment to protection and conservation of water resources saying there is a need for “increased regulatory options that protect receiving water, replace unnecessary restrictions with clear standards, and provide regulatory certainty that aids industry decision making and fosters innovation. Resource protection should not come at the expense of conservation.” A member of the Texas Oil and Gas Association noted that the “current regulatory environment stifles economic advancements” and advocated for a “suite of options to allow operators to sustainably and cost effectively manage wastewater.”

The EPA’s reexamination of current wastewater practices provides the potential to diversify industry options, while fostering innovation, and protecting the environment. The industry’s abundance of produced water may even provide a unique opportunity to address water scarcity concerns facing our country.

Rachel Jones, Director of Energy at the National Association of Manufacturers, may have said it best:

“The choice between environmental protection and a strong economy is not an either-or proposition. We can have both.”

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