PA DEP to Regulate Fracking Wastewater Discharge

Washington County PA rig

DEP guidelines to challenge natural gas extractors

Friday, October 29, 2010

Natural gas exploration and production companies will have a difficult time meeting new standards for limiting pollutants in wastewater dumped in the state’s waterways, experts said yesterday.

“That’s a real daunting challenge,” John W. Ubinger Jr., senior vice president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, said at an event focusing on the risks and opportunities of developing the state’s Marcellus shale natural gas reserves.

About 70 companies are involved in the exploration and production of natural gas in the state’s Marcellus shale reserves. Almost 1,100 wells have been drilled since January, and 2,350 permits have been issued in the first nine months of this year, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

In January, the DEP is set to implement standards that will not permit the discharging of any wastewater that contains more than 500 milligrams per liter of total dissolved solids — such as salts and other minerals — into the state’s watershed. Water used by natural gas drillers to fracture Marcellus shale formations to release the gas has much higher levels of the dissolved salts as well as other minerals and chemicals used in the process.

The state formulated the limits in the aftermath of high levels of pollutants found in the Monongahela River in October 2008. That affected the drinking water of towns that relied on the river and prompted the state to stop sewage treatment plants along the river from accepting such wastewater.

No longer can the industries dump the salt-laden wastewater into rivers with the expectation that so much river water would dilute the salts to a safe level.

“I am not sure that we (the natural gas industry) can reach that standard. It all but excludes any kind of stream discharge,” said Louis D’Amico, executive director of the Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association, a trade association in Marshall.

The cost of implementing technology to treat wastewater will be difficult for companies to bear, said D’Amico, who was not at the event, which was held in the Omni William Penn hotel, Downtown.

The new rules might force drilling companies to truck wastewater to Ohio where there are “quite a few disposal wells” to inject the polluted water deep underground, he said.

There are not as many injection wells in Pennsylvania, and D’Amico said the state’s geology is suitable for deep wells as in other states.

In Pennsylvania, many gas exploration and production companies are recycling wastewater, he noted.

Among those are Range Resources Corp., a Fort Worth company that is a major player in the state’s Marcellus shale reserves. It is recycling all of the millions of gallons of wastewater used to hydraulically fracture shale formations to produce gas, said Ray N. Walker Jr., senior vice president of Marcellus shale operations for Range Resources, which has offices in Cecil Township.

When the state announced plans last year to implement the new wastewater standards, Range Resources began looking at options for disposing of water that flows back to the surface. It considered treatment as an option, but recycling is more economically feasible and better for the environment, Walker said.

Range Resources is not opposed to the new standards, he said. In fact, it is in favor of the stricter environmental regulations, as long as they are consistent, stable and applied fairly to all industries, he added.

For the gas-producing companies to meet the regulations, there has to be “a culture of compliance,” said Ubinger, co-author of a 2010 Environmental Council report on developing the Marcellus shale. Some companies are unwilling to meet the standards or unable to do that, he said, while others consider going beyond the standards.

Those natural gas companies that don’t comply with the environmental rules will have to be fined or, in the worse case, prevented from operating in the state, Walker said.

Range Resources has an agreement with the National Energy Technology Laboratory in Morgantown, W.Va., to conduct an analysis of the environmental impact of the drilling operations, Ubinger said.

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