The principal operator at the Moneta Divide gas- and oilfield is on the cusp of failing to receive a permit by a deadline it said was necessary for the company “to be successful.”
Aethon Energy needs EPA permission to pump polluted water from the oilfield through the Marlin Well into the underground Amsden and Madison aquifers known to hold potable water. The permit would allow Aethon to budget for construction later this year of a pipeline to the controversial 15,000-foot-deep well, according to an email from the Texas company’s HSE & HR manager Andrea Taylor.
“Construction of the 18 mile pipeline to the Marlin well can occur with certainty from 8/1 to 11/1 per federal [right of way] grant … that we already hold,” Taylor wrote in an email to Gov. Mark Gordon’s Chief Energy Advisor Randall Luthi. “We cannot budget for projects that are pending approval.
“I consider Marlin approval required no later than Q1 2023 for Aethon to be successful,” her email reads. Quarter 1 ends on the last day of March.
After Taylor identified the Marlin Well as Aethon’s priority, the state’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission forwarded to federal regulators its recommended approval of the proposed disposal site. The federal EPA, however, did not commit to concurring with Wyoming’s approval by Aethon’s deadline, according to a March 14 email from the EPA to WyoFile.
“EPA has not made a decision” since receiving the state paperwork July 29 last year, an agency spokesman said earlier this month and confirmed Wednesday. “Typically, complex requests like this can take several months to review.”
The EPA is analyzing 470 pages of documents that make up the state record and did not say when it might reach a conclusion. The conservation group Powder River Basin Resource Council obtained Taylor’s email and others through a records request and shared them with WyoFile.
The Marlin Well and other disposal sites would help Aethon continue development of the Moneta Divide field at pace. New and tighter state-imposed standards for surface discharges of polluted water go into effect in the summer of 2024 and could curtail development at Moneta Divide.
The new standards limit the concentration of chloride and other pollutants Aethon discharges into nearby creeks that flow to Boysen Reservoir, a source of drinking water for downstream residents.
Aethon, which typically has not commented on pending permits, declined to explain Taylor’s definition of success or make other statements for this story. The emails obtained by the Powder River Basin Resource Council, however, lay out part of the energy company’s strategy.
Taylor met Rep. Lloyd Larsen (R-Lander) in late June 2022 and “expressed some frustration” at the pace of approval for the Marlin Well, according to an email the representative wrote to Luthi. Aethon also was seeking permits for about 40 other proposed disposal wells.
All but the Marlin, which targets the Amsden and Madison formations that hold potable water, are shallower energy wells presumably near or at the end of their useful lives.
Aethon’s Taylor “indicated they submitted 42 applications in 2020 and now 2 years later [only] 3 applications have been submitted to the EPA,” for its concurrence and approval, Larsen wrote Luthi. The legislator asked if there were “opportunities to move this forward at a little faster pace?
“My concern is the potential conflict where the injections [sic] wells are not permitted and the deadline for surface discharge comes and they can no longer discharge their production water,” Larsen’s email reads.
Larsen’s inquiry led to Luthi contacting the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission where an administrator asked for Aethon’s priorities, which Taylor submitted. The Marlin Well was at the top of the list.
State regulators submitted Wyoming’s recommended approval to EPA for its concurrence on July 29, 2022, almost two years after Wyoming had OK’d the Marlin for disposal.
As indicated by the EPA, approval for underground injection is a complex process. State records show that Aethon is currently seeking approval to dispose water in about 27 repurposed energy wells, and Larsen’s email states that there’s ongoing debate over how many underground water samples the company must submit as part of that approval process.
The Moneta Divide field covers 327,645 acres in Fremont and Natrona counties. In full development, the energy field could produce up to 1.4 million barrels of tainted water a day.
The 27 wells now pending state and federal approval might be able to accept about 6% of gas- and oilfield water discharges at the field’s full-production pace, according to calculations made by WyoFile and based on Aethon, state and federal data. The Marlin Well could accept up to 30,000 barrels of produced water a day — another 2% of potential daily effluent, WyoFile calculated.