A profile of the Marlin water disposal well and underlying geology. (Aethon Energy)

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.

“My concern is … the deadline for surface discharge comes and they can no longer discharge their production water.”

Rep. Lloyd Larsen

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.”

Production slowdown?

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.

An Aethon pump jack in the Moneta Divide oil and gas field east of Shoshoni. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr./WyoFile)

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.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

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  1. Given that water is the most valuable resource on the planet, given that we are in the midst of a mega-drought, given that the western U.S. is drastically short of water, and given that Wyoming is using the Madison formation for its supply of potable water, it is obvious that polluting this vital and irreplaceable resource is beyond foolish and stupid.

  2. purposely polluting the madison formation is just plain nuts on all levels. it should be very obvious to all that this drilling company doesn’t not have the capability to handle the wastewater and the project should be snuffed

  3. As others have pointed out, Aethon is capable of treating their wastewater. Permanently polluting Wyoming’s precious water resources is an unacceptable course of action, especially considering that the Marlin Well would accept only 2% of produced water per day at peak production. Aethon has enough money to do things the right way and treat their wastewater. State regulators should require Aethon to treat their water, rather than allowing them to take the easy way out and endanger Wyoming’s water supply.

  4. The Madison Aquifer provides high quality groundwater to many municipalities throughout the state of Wyoming. It would be a grave mistake to allow Aethon to discharge polluted discharge water into the Marlin 29-21 well. Why should the people of Wyoming give up a valuable water resource just to allow Aethon to have a cheaper disposal alternative for their polluted water? Enough.

    1. There are many elevations of the Madison aquifer. No one is getting water from a 15000 foot well. Nabors and H&P are not in the business of drilling water wells. If this was going to “poison” the entire aquifer this wouldn’t even have been brought up for approval. And remember that all these “poisons” that are coming up from these gas wells are coming from the same Earth that you think supplies such pure drinking water.

      1. Until you drill a hole in these “impermeable” strata, and send that produced water down, under pressure. You might consider the possible impacts to this aquifer, before granting permission for the company men to inject what would amount to 2% of their produced water, from the field. Sounds to me that they counted on dumping the waste water on the surface, and the fact that they are now being asked to protect valuable potable resources is a step too far for them. If this project can’t be done sustainably then it shouldn’t be done at all. To risk our water resources so that the state and this company can make a little money is unacceptable. Do it right, or don’t do it at all. We’re still cleaning up thousands of leaking wells and other sources of pollution from companies like this one, who have long since gone bankrupt and passed their dirty legacies on to the good citizens of Wyoming, present and future.

  5. Wyoming is a headwater state that has managed to give away water to downstream states. We emptied our aquifers to release coalbed methane, despite having planned, permitted, and built “water storage and retrieval facilities during the CBM boom. Compliant politicians are rewarded with reelection, rather than being turned out of office.

    The recharge rates of aquifers is inconveniently long, so voters are told lies. Wyoming needs to do a better job of acting like their rhetoric, instead of sending pliable politicians to Cheyenne.

    Aethon Energy has shown you who they are, and how much they don’t value your water. Believe them. Make sure that the corruptible policy makers don’t cave in to their plans to pollute potable water. There really shouldn’t be such an option, but Wyoming has been so corrupt, that a little money goes a long way towards increasing profitability.

    1. Well put, they have shown us who they are indeed, an investment company not a drilling company. Success is a rise in their stock price, not a well-managed extraction of fossil fuels.
      Dealing with produced water responsibly is hard and expensive. They should shoulder that burden & not expect Wyoming future citizens to be stuck with the problem.

      The corruption here is on all of us too. Our state pays for everything with taxes & fees from this industry (+ money from “the feds”) so it cannot be a surprise when our officials allow obvious bad planning to get an exemption from the very laws that should protect our air & aquifers. This is where the $$ comes from.

      We are all corrupted by not having a better way to fund our state. Yes, I’m daring to say income & wealth taxes.

  6. This article says: “The Marlin Well could accept up to 30,000 barrels of produced water a day — another 2% of potential daily effluent, WyoFile calculated.”

    So, even with permanently polluting the Madison freshwater aquifer, Aethon still would be far from having a complete wastewater disposal system in place for its oil and gas field. We know they can treat the water and state regulators should require them to do that right now.

  7. Typical Biden Administration process of stalling to keep foreign oil investments thriving. Allowing PERMITS, LEASES and companies to sit idling while interagency EPA in this case stalling for 8 months putting more red tape on the agenda. So when the Administration blames oil companies for not using LEASES and the PERMITS remember EPA was allowed to hold back the key to open the door of Energy independence in America again.

    1. Mrs. Jones, with all due respect, are you seriously OK with fouling creeks and potable water sources so Aethon can line its pockets? What good is energy independence when you can’t drink the water from your own taps? This isn’t Biden. It’s common sense regulation. Please think of what you’re espousing. Clean water is NOT a renewable resource.

  8. Aethon, a Texas based company, has consistently targeted pollution of streams and a deep potable aquifer to enable their plan for development. Their proposed water disposal plan would never fly in Texas, I know because I worked as a petroleum geologist in Texas basins. Aethon needs to put together a plan of water treatment such as reverse osmosis to handle their produced water without damaging surface water and the deep Madison fresh water aquifer. If peak field production must be lower, so be it. Wyoming’s water resources are too valuable to pollute for a little royalty income. It is confounding how our state representatives are willing to give away our resources.

    1. Dan: Your comments are the most profound statements I’ve read in about 10 years of following the Aethon disposal of production water issue. Talk about telling it as it is !! We’ve had a lack of good precise, crisp comments on this issue.

      Aethon is in a tough position with respect to this field because they bought a highly polluted field without doing a good environmental due diligence. By this I mean the Badwater creek has been polluted since the 1960s with a considerable build up of sludge for which Aethon was issued an NOV ( Notice of Violation ) by Wyoming DEQ several years ago. However, I’m not aware of remedial environmental cleanup of the Badwater Creek bottom having taken place – and, their could be 4-12 miles of bottom which needs cleanup – almost bad enough to be a Superfund site. I looked up the possibility of petitioning the EPA to list it as a Superfund site; however, very, very few of the listed sites – only a hand full out of over 1,000 – are actually being cleaned up so listing wouldn’t help.

      Since Aethon is a basically a venture capitalist investment, they probably had a goal of flipping the property via sale to a major petroleum company after the EIS was completed and after all the permits are in place. Therefore, not securing the necessary discharge permits makes the property unmerchantable and they’re stuck with the property until such time as the permits are issued.

      The property had an operating reverse osmosis water treatment plant which Aethon shut down to reduce operating costs. However, the single plant could only process a small portion of the discharge water and the reject portion of the water still needed disposal by injection. The problem with water treatment is that the EIS allowed for thousands of wells over an area of about 300,000 acres; and under these conditions, the volume of discharge water which could potentially be produced was immense.

      If I remember right, Aethon has until July of 2024 to get their chloride content down to the CWA standards; however, the chlorides greatly exceed the CWA standards implying that water treatment isn’t feasible – suggesting that deep injection is the only cost effective alternative. The high chloride content also means the discharge water should not be surface discharged into Boysen Reservoir a process which would dilute the chloride content down by mixing with the mass of Boysen’s water.

      So, it remains a huge problem the solution of which is awaiting the EPA decision on whether or not the high chloride discharge water can be injected into the deep, unpolluted Madison formation. Should the EPA approve injection into the Madision, I believe it would be a precedence setting decision which would mean deep injection into the Madison may be an option in other basins in Wyoming.

      It would be greatly appreciated if you could comment further since you are a professional in this field and seem to know what you’re talking about.