Some congressional GOP lawmakers and state officials oppose the Environmental Protection Agency's coming proposal to regulate wastewater derived from shale-gas extraction. They fear the new rules could stifle a growing, jobs-producing industry. But EPA and environmental groups say federal effluent standards are needed to ensure the expanding shale-gas extraction business operates safely nationwide.
At issue is EPA's October announcement that it will issue a proposal in 2014, under its Clean Water Act authority, to regulate wastewater from shale-gas production and extraction. Such wastewater is not federally regulated now but is regulated by many states.
But Jim Hanlon, EPA director of wastewater management, responded, "Access to energy resources and clean water are not mutually exclusive." Hanlon said state and federal agencies can play complementary roles in keeping a watchful eye on the industry.
Dana Murphy, Oklahoma Corporation Commission chairwoman, told the subcommittee that states should regulate the wastewater discharges. "We have the most experience to ensure that wells are drilled safely … and with minimal impact on the environment," she said.
Murphy pointed to the State Review of Oil and Natural Gas Environmental Regulations Inc. (STRONGER), which aims to set benchmarks for state energy regulatory programs. Its board includes state officials and representatives of environmental groups and energy companies. She said that, over the two years that EPA has been discussing how to study hydraulic fracturing, STRONGER has finished five state reviews of "hydrofracking" regulations and recommended changes, which states have been carrying out.
Jim Kohlhaas, vice president of strategic energy initiatives at McLean, Va.-based Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC), which is active in the Marcellus, Bakken and Eagleford shale formations, agrees that states are best equipped to regulate shale-gas processes.
"This industry is changing very quickly," Kohlhaas told ENR. Best practices are emerging and, in some cases, changing the way gas is extracted and water is disposed. Kohlhaas says federal rules can take years to develop, but states, working with industry to incorporate best practices into regulations, can respond more quickly to new developments in the sector.
For example, some operators in Canada are injecting the ground with liquid petroleum gas, rather than the mix of chemicals and water used in conventional hydrofracking. The petroleum gel practice does not generate wastewater. But Paul Carter, senior vice president of SAIC's energy, environment and infrastructure group, says there are still "concerns" about injecting a potentially flammable substance underground, though special precautions are taken to ensure it is done safely. Carter and Kohlhaas say other practices, such as recycling and reusing wastewater or capturing gas emitted from hydrofracking, are becoming more common.
However, Ed Hopkins, director of the Sierra Club's environmental quality programs, stresses the importance of a national rule, saying, "EPA routinely issues effluent guidelines for industrial wastewater streams, and we don't see why this should be different from any other industry."The debate over EPA's plan was evident at a Nov. 16 House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee hearing. Panel Chairman Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio) said, "I am concerned that, given the recent history of new EPA regulations, these new effluent guidelines will be so needlessly restrictive that the gas extraction operations in Ohio and many other states—and the resulting economic benefits they provide to the states—will suffer."