Vol. 5, No. 25
Topics discussed in this week’s Report include:
- EPA final rule prohibits sewage plant treatment of hydraulic fracturing wastewater.
- Panel of EPA Science Advisory Board may recommend that EPA revise hydraulic fracturing study.
- Municipal West Virginia oil and gas ordinances pre-empted.
- North Dakota flaring declines.
- Environmental groups claim increased cancer risk near oil and gas operations.
- Environmental group claims gas drilling caused chemical exposures in Pavillion.
EPA final rule prohibits sewage plant treatment of hydraulic fracturing wastewater. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a final rule establishing a zero discharge pre-treatment standard for hydraulic fracturing wastewater, effectively banning companies from sending wastewater to municipal sewage treatment plants. The final oil and gas industry effluent limit guideline cited high concentrations of salts, metals and chlorides in hydraulic fracturing fluids. Publicly owned treatment works generally lack the ability to remove these pollutants before the waste streams are discharged to surface water. Some oil and gas producing states have already moved in this direction. For example, Pennsylvania has imposed a moratorium on sewage treatment plants accepting hydraulic fracturing wastewater since 2011. Instead, nearly 90 percent of the fluids are recycled.
Panel of EPA Science Advisory Board may recommend that EPA revise hydraulic fracturing study. At a recent meeting of a panel of EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB), panel members discussed recommending to EPA that it revise a draft EPA report finding no “widespread, systematic impacts” to drinking water from hydraulic fracturing. Environmental groups had criticized that conclusion, arguing that the report lacked sufficient data to support it. At the recent advisory panel meeting, the groups argued that there is voluminous evidence of hydraulic fracturing affecting drinking water sources. Industry groups challenged the groups’ claims and supported EPA’s draft finding while criticizing the draft for defining drinking water sources so broadly as to include unusable saline aquifers. Advisory panel members indicated they would recommend that EPA either clarify the statement or add a caveat that more research is needed, but panel members appeared to rule out recommending that EPA remove the conclusion. EPA would not be required to adopt any changes recommended by SAB.
Municipal West Virginia oil and gas ordinances pre-empted. A U.S. District Court ruled that Fayette County’s ban on oil and gas wastewater disposal wells are pre-empted by West Virginia’s Oil and Gas Act. According to the court, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Quality has exclusive authority over both oil and gas operations and underground injection control wells. Fayette County, home to more than 200 production wells and three wastewater disposal wells, banned wastewater disposal wells in January 2016, citing concerns about environmental effects. EQT Production Company sued to overturn the ban, arguing that Fayette County cannot rely on its general police power to eliminate nuisances and public health hazards. The court agreed, holding that the fields of oil and gas and wastewater disposal wells are so heavily regulated by the state that there is no room for supplemental local regulation. The decision also noted that the Safe Drinking Water Act prohibits states from banning underground injection control wells but did not explicitly hold that federal law also pre-empted the Fayette County ban.
North Dakota flaring declines. The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) reported that North Dakota oil wells are flaring only about 10 percent of produced gas, a significant drop from 36 percent in January 2014. Environmental groups have urged state regulators to reduce flaring in North Dakota and succeeded in convincing the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to propose rules to abate the practice on federal and Indian lands. According to the EIA, gas pipeline infrastructure developed over the past two years has already resulted in dramatic reductions in flaring even while gas production has increased, setting a new record of 1.71 billion cubic feet per day in March 2016. The state established regulations in September 2015 that require flaring to decrease from 23 percent in early 2016 to 9 percent in November 2020.
Environmental groups claim increased cancer risk near oil and gas operations. Environmental groups Clean Air Task Force and Earthworks claim that air emissions from equipment leaks lead to increased cancer risks for those living within a half mile of oil and gas wells, compressors or processors. They released an interactive map, titled “Oil and Gas Threat Map,” and an accompanying report that purport to correlate areas in each state with higher cancer risks with the presence of oil and gas activities. According to the groups, approximately nine million people residing in 238 counties have a cancer risk exceeding EPA’s one-in-a-million level of concern, which the groups claim is due to emissions from oil and gas operations. An industry trade association stated in response that oil and gas operations have reduced leak emissions continuously since 2005 even while production increased and that new EPA regulations will decrease leaks even further.
Environmental group claims gas drilling caused chemical exposures in Pavillion. Coming Clean, an environmental group coalition, released a report claiming that residents of Pavillion, Wyoming, were exposed to several volatile organic compounds. The report blames air emissions from the town’s hydraulically fractured shale gas wells. The study cites anecdotal complaints by residents of various maladies, such as nosebleeds, fatigue, rashes, headaches and depression, and attempts to use biomonitoring to connect those ailments to gas well activities. It finds that air monitoring data exceeded short-term environmental screening levels for benzene and xylenes and that the average results of biomonitoring, collected by volunteers wearing sorbent tubes, showed both chemicals in excess of a one-in-a-million cancer risk. The report was released in the same week that the Environmental Working Group released a report claiming that petrochemical workers had benzene in their blood at higher concentrations than the general public.
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