Dirty Water

One of the most challenging environmental problems associated with drilling is disposing of its wastewater, which is typically laced with heavy metals, chemicals and hydrocarbons. Usually the waste is collected in open, dirt-brimmed waste pits where it sits until it’s hauled off to treatment facilities or injection wells. In the meantime, the fluids can evaporate or seep into the earth, or overflow if rain or snow overfills the pit.

A 1992 Congressional report found that one of “the greatest opportunities” to prevent this type of pollution is something called a closed loop system, a series of pipes that gathers the waste as it comes out of a gas well, separates some of the water for reuse, and confines the concentrated leftovers in a steel tank. According to EPA findings quoted in the report, closed loop systems can reduce the volume of drilling fluids – and the chemicals used — by more than 90 percent. Because the waste is enclosed, chemicals can’t evaporate, fluids are less likely to spill and permanent pits aren’t needed.

Closed loop systems are rarely required in state regulations, but they are increasingly used, in part because they can save money for the companies that use them.

A 2001 case study by the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates gas drilling in Texas, focused on a small gas producer that tested such a system. Building the pipes and tanks cost the company more initially, according to the report, but the company – which it did not name – didn’t have to construct a waste pit, remediate the land when it finished drilling, haul its toxic materials to a disposal site or pay the slew of environmental fees levied by the state. According to the Railroad Commission, the company saved at least $10,000 for each gas well that was connected to the closed loop system. At that rate, the savings from the use of such a system on all the roughly 4,500 wells in Sublette County could tally $45 million.

Yet the industry continues to fight laws that would lead to increased use of closed loop systems.

In 2008 New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s administration passed some of the nation’s strongest rules prohibiting the use of unlined waste pits and thereby encouraging the use of a closed-loop system as an alternative. The regulation was inspired by a study that found that leaks or seepage from waste pits had contaminated water supplies in some 400 cases.

The industry mounted a public relations, lobbying, and legal war to stop the law, claiming that it would weigh down business with excessive costs that would ultimately result in lost jobs. In early 2009, Richardson relented and directed his administration to relax several of the rule’s requirements and timelines.

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