The 98th Meridian Foundation – a non-profit dedicated to education and research on issues relating to the nexus of energy, water and land – would like to thank the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for issuing the draft study on produced water from oil and gas extraction, titled “Study of Oil and Gas Extraction Wastewater Management Under the Clean Water Act” [EPA‐821‐R19‐001]. We are delighted for the opportunity to comment on this study.
We agree that the subject of produced water management is of critical importance; so important, in fact, that in March of this year, the 98th Meridian Foundation also produced a white paper on this topic, titled “Texas Disposal and injection Well Regulation.” This paper can be found under the report section at 98thmeridianfoundation.org. While the Foundation’s paper specifically addresses pertinent regulations in Texas, several subjects addressed in the EPA draft study that have national implications were mentioned in our paper.
The EPA study repeatedly mentions the variability of produced water characteristics and composition due to differences within varying geological formations across the country, as well as differences in chemicals used in the drilling, hydraulic fracturing and production of oil and gas wells. This is true, and is a major contributor to the high cost of recycling produced water: A one-size-fits-all solution is far from adequate and cannot take into account all of these significant variables. The Foundation contends that this large variability provides a solid argument for regulating produced water discharges at the state level. State regulators are most likely to understand and devise rules to fit local conditions and circumstances.
The 98th Meridian Foundation wishes to address the four questions for which the EPA specifically requests public input:
What non-regulatory steps should EPA take to encourage re-use/recycle of produced water?
We at the 98th Meridian Foundation believe it would be very beneficial for EPA to explain in greater detail the technical requirements and practical inner
workings of these regulations, since this is a very complex and difficult area for oil and gas operators, as well as disposal well operators, to understand. When it comes to EPA’s recycling and re-use regulations, it is our opinion that in some cases operators can become so overly concerned with compliance – and fearful of repercussions from unintended violations – that disposal can seem like a more attractive option as opposed to inadvertently violating federal recycling and re-use rules.
We feel that greater transparency, more workshops and additional guidance documents that explain what can be done to recycle produced and flowback water under existing regulations would be helpful to encourage and promote increased water recycling.
Considering the cost of transporting and treating produced water, would revising 40 CFR Part 435 to allow for broader discharge of produced water shift the manner in which produced water is currently handled?
We think this would be a positive step; however, in many states such as Texas and Oklahoma where the cost differential between disposal and recycling is heavily tilted towards disposal, this change alone will only marginally impact produced water management.
Should EPA continue to distinguish between discharges from onshore oil and gas facilities located east and west of the 98th meridian or establish a national policy irrespective of geographic location?
EPA should not continue to make this geographic distinction. While on average water is more scarce, and thus more precious, in the west than in the east, if it’s clean enough to be discharged it is clean enough to be discharged – regardless of which side of the meridian it’s on.
To us at the 98th Meridian Foundation the real question is: Should EPA require water to be discharged to meet exactly the same standard throughout the country, or should the standard be tailored based on the quality of the water into which it is being discharged (ground or surface)? The Foundation supports the latter model.
What steps could EPA take that might incent re-use of produced water within and outside of the oilfield?
The 98th Meridian Foundation believes that policy towards disposal wells should be predicated on the following principles: Oil and gas production is essential for the economic health of the United States of America; It is also critical for the physical health and comfort of its citizens, at least for the foreseeable future. Producing oil and natural gas will inevitably generate flowback and produced water, which must be properly managed.
Currently, the vast majority of produced water is handled through two primary methods: re-use in oil and gas exploration and production, or disposal in an underground injection/disposal well.
Disposal wells have been a safe, well-regulated and generally cost-effective method of dealing with water from oil and gas operations for several decades. They will continue to be a needed and major factor in managing produced and flowback water.
However, a number of circumstances and external factors are coalescing, indicating a necessary policy shift toward re-use, recycling and other beneficial uses over disposal and injection well usage. Considerations include:
- The need for water in many of the country’s arid, hydrocarbon-producing areas;
- Potential seismic problems from injecting into certain geologic formations, primarily near existing faults;
- Over-pressurization of producing zones and/or zones through which drilling must occur; and,
- Potential for wellbore integrity problems.
The oil and gas industry is reusing meaningful amounts of produced and flowback water in exploration and production activity; sometimes without prior treatment, such as in waterflooding, or after at least partial reprocessing for use in hydraulic fracturing jobs. Outside of the oil and gas industry, however, beneficial re- use of produced and flowback water becomes relatively rare. It is certainly possible to re-use recycled water in mining applications and cooling ponds for electrical generation.
EPA should draft regulations in a way that not only allows but encourages and promotes these types of activities and alternative uses. Every barrel of water re-used by the industry saves a barrel of water for other uses.
Two other areas that should be investigated are discharge to ground or surface water, and irrigation uses, particularly of inedible crops such as cotton.
In 2015, while Chairman of the Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC), 98th Meridian Foundation’s founder and chairman David Porter worked to push forward an innovative re-use pilot program. The RRC, Texas A&M AgriLife Research and a handful of private companies joined together for the six-month project irrigating a cotton crop in Pecos, Texas using recycled produced water from oil and gas operations in the Delaware Basin. Irrigating the crop with a blended mixture of groundwater and produced water resulted in no reduction of cotton yield or lint quality.
Innovative solutions to reusing produced water, such as this, should be more widely explored and if proven safe, broadly accepted by regulatory agencies. Encouraging this type of activity through grants, permits or rule exemptions allows universities, NGOs, industry and government to conduct research and determine the appropriate maximum level of total dissolved solids (TDS), as well as other necessary requirements and standards for such re-usage.
There are a number of people in and around industry who believe extracting minerals from the produced water during the recycling process would be one way to justify and pay for the cost of such treatment. Due to the variability of this water’s chemical composition throughout the country, it is very difficult to make generalizations about extracting minerals from that water. There may be certain geographic locations, however, where it is possible to extract enough minerals to cover the cost of recycling, but it is doubtful that this would apply to a large enough swath of the country to make a significant impact. It certainly would be an interesting and potential area of study for those types of institutions mentioned in the paragraph above.
The 98th Meridian Foundation has intentionally avoided overly specific and technical responses because we feel as a general policy it is best for regulations to establish specific end results rather than detailing methods to follow.
Thank you for your time, consideration and the opportunity to comment on the draft report.
Chairman/Founder, 98th Meridian Foundation