Fracking: EPA Addresses the Dearth of Standards

October 20, 2011

October 20, 2011

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) today announced a schedule to develop standards for natural gas wastewater. The goal of such standards is to keep water in the natural gas extraction area that is later used by humans, flora and fauna:

  1. cleaner
  2. safer
  3. non-toxic

Over the coming months EPA will begin the process of developing a proposed wastewater standard with the input of stakeholders – including industry and public health groups.  Specifically, these will be standards for wastewater discharges produced by natural gas extraction from underground coalbed and shale formations.

President Obama has made it clear that natural gas has a central role to play in our energy economy, said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson (pictured, right). "That is why we are taking steps -- in coordination with our federal partners and informed by the input of industry experts, states and public health organizations -- to make sure the needs of our energy future are met safely and responsibly."

Jackson did not indicate agency support per se for the decision to pursue natural gas as a central player in the US energy economy.

As with any resource, EPA says with notable neutrality, the agency is committed to ensuring that we continue leveraging valuable resources safely and responsibly, including understanding potential impacts on water resources.

Shale Gas Standards:  Currently, wastewater associated with shale gas extraction is prohibited from being directly discharged to waterways and other waters of the U.S. While some of the wastewater from shale gas extraction is reused or re-injected, a significant amount still requires disposal. As a result, some shale gas wastewater is transported to treatment plants, many of which are not properly equipped to treat this type of wastewater. EPA will consider standards based on demonstrated, economically achievable technologies, for shale gas wastewater that must be met before going to a treatment facility.

Coalbed Methane Standards: Wastewater associated with coalbed methane extraction is not currently subject to national standards for being directly discharged into waterways and for pre-treatment standards. Its regulation is left to individual states. For coalbed methane, EPA will be considering uniform national standards based on economically achievable technologies.

EPA will gather data, consult with stakeholders, including ongoing consultation with industry, and solicit public comment on a proposed rule for coalbed methane in 2013 and a proposed rule for shale gas in 2014.

The schedule for coalbed methane is shorter because EPA has already gathered extensive data and information in this area.  EPA will take additional time to gather comparable data on shale gas.  In particular, EPA says it will look at potential for cost-effective steps for pretreatment of this wastewater based on practices and technologies that are already available and being deployed or tested by industry to reduce pollutants in these discharges.

Summary of EPA fracking standard announcement  Today's  announcement is part of the effluent guidelines program, which sets national standards for industrial wastewater discharges based on best available technologies that are economically achievable. EPA is required to publish a biennial outline of all industrial wastewater discharge rulemakings underway. EPA has issued national technology-based regulations for 57 industries since 1972. These regulations have prevented the discharge of more than 1.2 billion pounds of toxic pollutants each year into US waters.

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