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Environment: EPA to regulate water impacts from gas-drilling

National rule-making will include input from industry, public

Colorado's surface and groundwater may get more protection from natural gas drilling impacts as the EPA plans to develop new rules on wastewater discharge from drilling operations.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — In what could turn out to be a big win for Colorado communities and the environment, the EPA announced it will develop a regulatory framework for wastewater discharges produced by natural gas extraction from underground coalbed and shale formations.

Information reviewed by EPA, including state-supplied wastewater sampling data, have documented elevated levels of pollutants entering surface waters as a result of inadequate treatment at facilities.

Some of the chemicals in fracking fluids are known carcinogens and the health effects of many additives are not fully understood, in large part because industry officials have refused to disclose precisely what they are using.

Tisha Schuller, President and CEO, Colorado Oil & Gas Association, said wastewater disposal is covered under state regulations.

“We are looking over EPA’s information. In the meantime, we want our communities to know that in Colorado, all oil and gas wastewater is handled in accordance with state regulation,” Schuller said.  “While there are not federal standards, there are strict state standards through both Colorado Oil and Gas Commission and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment for handling and disposal of wastewaters.”

“We applaud the Environmental Protection Agency for announcing it will limit wastewater pollution from gas development, including the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing or fracking,” said Earthjustice attorney Deborah Goldberg.

“The nation is in the midst of a fracking-fueled gas rush which is generating toxic wastewater faster than treatment plants can handle it. The EPA’s proposal is a common sense solution for this growing public health problem and will help keep poisons out of our rivers, streams, and drinking water,” she added.

The EPA envisions proposing national rules in 2014. The regulations could help give energy companies more regulatory certainty than the existing patchwork of state by state regulations and will, once completed, protect community drinking water supplies, groundwater and aquatic habitat in streams and lakes.

The rule-making process will proceed with stakeholder input, including industry and public health groups.

In prepared release, the EPA said the rule-making is consistent with priorities identified in the president’s Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future, and is consistent with the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board recommendations on steps to support the safe development of natural gas resources.

“The president has made clear that natural gas has a central role to play in our energy economy. 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,” said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. “We can protect the health of American families and communities at the same time we ensure access to all of the important resources that make up our energy economy. The American people expect and deserve nothing less.”

Recent technology and operational improvements in extracting natural gas resources, particularly shale gas, have increased gas drilling activities across the country. Production from shale formations has grown from a negligible amount just a few years ago to almost 15 percent of total U.S. natural gas production and this share is expected to triple in the coming decades. The sharp rise in domestic production has improved U.S. energy security and created jobs, and as with any resource the administration is committed to ensuring that we continue to leverage these resources safely and responsibly, including understanding any potential impact 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.

To ensure that these wastewaters receive proper treatment and can be properly handled by treatment plants, 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 the additional time to gather comparable data on shale gas. In particular, EPA will be looking at the 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.

This 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.

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