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EPA to Develop Shale Wastewater Standards

October 21, 2011
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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Thursday said it plans to develop national pretreatment standards for wastewater from shale natural gas extraction operations with a proposed rule expected to be issued in 2014. The news was met by industry groups asking the government agency to leave regulation in the hands of the individual states.

While some shale gas wastewater is reused or reinjected, other shale gas wastewater is transported to treatment plants, many of which are not properly equipped to treat this type of wastewater, according to the EPA. The agency said the standards being developed would have to be met before shale gas can be taken to a treatment facility.

"There are no such [quality] standards for wastewater from shale gas extraction" at this time, said Cynthia Dougherty, director of EPA's Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water, during a hearing of a Senate Energy and Natural Resources subcommittee Thursday.

"There really isn't good treatment right now for some of the things in wastewater," she said. "The purpose of doing the regulatory process is to find out what treatment exists and what treatment would be usable to the industry."

Responding to the news, Daniel Whitten, America's Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA) spokesman, argued for state regulatory control.

"Like all oversight of natural gas development, wastewater disposal is actively regulated at the state level," he said. "ANGA continues to believe that state regulatory professionals are best qualified to assess the unique geological characteristics of the shale plays in their region and the appropriate water disposal requirements that arise from those conditions. As EPA officials move forward we encourage them to partner with the states and take into serious consideration state regulators' existing on-the-ground expertise and ongoing oversight activities."

The EPA also is examining wastewater associated with the extraction of coalbed methane (CBM). It is not subject to national standards but rather is regulated by individual states. The agency said it plans to issue a proposed rule on CBM wastewater in 2013. The schedule for [CBM] is shorter because, according to EPA, it has already gathered extensive data and information in this area.

EPA said it would take the additional time to collect comparable data on shale gas. In particular, EPA will look at the potential for cost-effective steps for pre-treatment of wastewater based on practices and technologies that are already available and being deployed or tested by industry to reduce pollutants in these discharges.

Information reviewed by the EPA, including state-provided wastewater sampling data, has documented elevated levels of pollutants entering surface waters as a result of inadequate treatment of facilities, the agency contends. Dougherty said the EPA currently is reviewing the various states of water use in the hydraulic fracturing process.

She said the EPA recognizes the "promise that natural gas holds" for the country, namely improving air quality and providing a certainty of energy supply.

Production from shale formations has grown from a negligible amount just a few years ago to almost 15% of total domestic natural gas production and is expected to triple in the coming decades, the agency said.

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