The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced that it intends to develop new wastewater discharge standards for shale gas extraction and coalbed methane (CBM) extraction. The new rules developed will be part of the EPA’s Effluent Guidelines Program. Under the federal Clean Water Act (CWA), the EPA must publish a schedule for proposed rulemakings for its Effluent Guidelines Program every two years. This announcement completes the final step in establishing the EPA’s 2010 Effluent Guidelines Program, and the EPA will now begin developing regulations to implement its proposed effluent guidelines.
Currently, there are no national standards governing discharges of CBM extraction wastewater, and these discharges are regulated on a state-by-state basis. Although some water produced by CBM extraction is relatively clean and can be discharged with minimal treatment, other discharges contain high levels of salts and minerals that are not easily removed from the wastewater. The EPA is proposing to establish national standards for discharges of wastewaters generated in connection with CBM production to surface waters and to treatment facilities. The agency expects to solicit public comment on a proposed rule in 2013. Available technology options for reducing salt and mineral concentrations mentioned in the pre-publication version of the 2010 Effluent Guidelines Program Plan are ion exchange and reverse osmosis. A study report on CBM and its discharges was released with the 2010 Plan, and the EPA is now planning to adopt national standards in response to that report.
For shale gas wastewater, the EPA will consider imposing pre-treatment standards for discharges to a wastewater treatment facility. Under existing provisions of the CWA, shale gas wastewater may not be discharged directly into waterways without a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit. Since NPDES permits are difficult to obtain, shale gas wastewater is most often injected into underground formations that do not contain potable water or are cleaned and reused for hydraulic fracturing. However, in some areas of the country, such as Pennsylvania, it is not uncommon for flowback water to be sent to publicly and privately-owned treatment facilities, which are not universally equipped to treat the salts and minerals typically contained in the flowback water.
The EPA expects to propose a rule for shale gas wastewater discharges to wastewater treatment plants in 2014. Pretreatment standards will require operators to treat this produced water in accordance with national technology-based regulations rather than merely meeting local limits currently applicable to wastewater treatment plant discharges. It is important to note that the EPA has not proposed to develop requirements relating to re-injection or re-use of flowback water, which are the two most common techniques for handling hydraulic fracturing wastewater.
What this means
The EPA’s announcement provides notice that the agency will be developing national standards for discharges of shale gas and CBM wastewaters to surface waters and to wastewater treatment plants that subsequently discharge to surface waters. Rulemakings under the Effluent Guidelines Program require implementation of the best available control technologies that are economically achievable (BAT). For many operators, the new standards could significantly increase the cost of disposing wastewater produced by shale gas and CBM extraction. The EPA has already conducted a study on CBM, included in the 2010 Plan, and the agency plans to conduct outreach, data gathering, site visits and a national industry survey in the development of its shale gas pretreatment standards. Operators who are concerned about the potential impacts of these new requirements are encouraged to participate in this process, as well as the public comment process expected to occur in 2013 and 2014.