If Trump's EPA has its way, more oilfield wastewater may soon come to a river near you

Nichole Saunders

We still don't know exactly what's in the 1 trillion gallons of wastewater that the oil and gas industry produces every year. That isn't stopping the Environmental Protection Agency from considering rolling back laws designed to keep such waste out of our rivers and streams.

Energy companies fracture deep rock formations with a mix of water and chemicals to extract oil and gas. The toxic surge of wastewater that eventually comes out on the other side can contain more than 1,000 chemicals — including arsenic, cancer-causing benzene, heavy metals and radioactive materials.

The industry has historically locked away this nasty stuff in deep underground wells. And yet, the EPA is now weighing a rule change that could allow companies to release such waste into waterways that make their way to farms, ranches, golf courses, lawns — even drinking water supplies.

EPA's "listening tour" ignored concerns

In some areas of the West, where drilling is booming, wastewater disposal costs are rising due to earthquakes and other factors.

As operators look for new ways to handle wastewater, plenty of people — including overly enthusiastic entrepreneurs and an industry-friendly EPA led by a former coal lobbyist — stand ready to help.

Wrapping up a brief listening tour, the EPA just released a draft paper that summarizes input from industry, states, tribes, nonprofits and academics. Nearly every group voiced concerns about uncertainty or risk from expanding these discharges.

But instead of asking for more input to address those concerns before surging forward, the EPA is requesting information on how to expand opportunities to discharge wastewater and encourage its reuse. This suggests the agency is planning to accommodate industry at the expense of public health.

Today, there are nearly 240,000 oil and gas wells within half a mile of a water body in the United States. All of them could become new sources of pollution if EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler has his way.

The @EPA should keep waste from oilfields out of our waterways until we know more about the chemicals in that waste and how it affects people, plants and animals.

Less than 25% of chemicals can be monitored

New wastewater research shows how little we know. And what we do know should give us pause.

The exact composition of wastewater varies from region to region, well to well and day to day. Samples are hard to get and difficult to analyze.

Some of the chemicals used to extract oil and gas are closely guarded industrial secrets. Most of the 1,000-plus chemicals identified in this wastewater thus far are not well studied, and some have not been evaluated at all. In fact, the EPA has methods to monitor and quantify fewer than 25%.

Entrepreneurs and lobbyists smell opportunity 

While the rush to reuse wastewater is ramping up, the proposed solutions are concerning:

  • An ex-rodeo clown turned water treatment entrepreneur from Wyoming, who claims he can treat wastewater and use it to restore grasslands and sequester carbon, has applied for permits in Wyoming and New Mexico.
  • A joint paper from the EPA and the state of New Mexico recently rebranded oilfield wastewater treated for reuse as "renewable water."
  • Wyoming is currently considering wastewater discharge permits that could put drinking water resources and pristine waters at risk.
  • Oil lobbyists in Texas tried — and failed — to pitch wastewater as a "drought proof" resource and get a tax credit for companies who reuse it for "beneficial purposes."

All this even though there's no urgent need to push through risky rules. There is still room to dispose of wastewater in wells that are properly located, designed and monitored.

More wastewater can also be recycled on site and perhaps eventually — with a lot more science and with strong state and federal safety standards — it could be treated and reused in ways that minimize environmental risks.

In the meantime, we need to slow down and do the research.

Help us prevent a big mistake

We’re working with scientists, regulators and operators to develop a better understanding of wastewater to reduce the environmental impact of how it’s stored, transported, treated and disposed of. Because five, 10, or 20 years from now, we don’t want to find out that we’ve made a big mistake letting this waste pollute America’s waterways.

You can help us continue this critical work.

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