Hydraulic fracking provides the opportunity to tap into massive natural gas reserves which is located deep beneath the earth. In Ohio and Pennsylvania, Marcellus and Utica Shale is sedimentary rock which contains huge quantities of natural gas.
Hydraulic fracking uses water injected at high pressure to break up the rock allowing the gas to be released into wells. The process uses large amounts of water. One well may use up to three to eight million gallons of water in about a week.
Most of the water stays deep underground, but around 10% resurfaces and is called flowback water. Regulators consider flowback water wastewater from an industrial operation because the water contains total dissolved solids (TDS), salts and metals/oils used to aid in the fracking process.
Disposal of the flowback water has been hotly debated in Pennsylvania where massive quantities of the water have been generated. Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (Pennsylvania DEP) estimates 235 million gallons of flowback water was generated in 2010.
Methods for Disposal of Flowback Water
The primary method of disposal of flowback water in Pennsylvania was through publicly owned sewage treatment plans (POTWs). However, concerns emerged that POTWs could only dilute the water, not treat it prior to discharge to streams and rivers.
Pennsylvania passed regulations establishing effluent standards for treatment of flowback water. However, the regulations exempted existing loads and only kicked in if a treatment facility was expanding. Pressure mounted on DEP to regulate disposal of all flowback water.
Industry Voluntarily Ceases Use of POTWs in Pennsylvania
Last week, Pennsylvania DEP announced that the oil/gas industry voluntarily agreed to stop the practice of shipping flowback water to POTWs. The DEP announcement from last Thursday was covered in Pennlive.com:
Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Krancer told officials in a meeting in Washington, D.C., on Thursday that drilling wastewater is no longer being discharged to rivers or streams in Pennsylvania without full treatment.
DEP spokeswoman Katy Gresh said the agency has not yet confirmed full compliance with Krancer’s request that drillers voluntarily stop taking the wastewater to such facilities.
But she said it has confirmed that “We’ve gone from millions and millions of gallons being discharged to virtually none.”
After the announcement, its seems clear Pennsylvania is moving toward use of dedicated treatment facilities that can treat the brine and materials in flowback water. Approximately 25 of these facilities are slated to open.
Debate over Disposal of Flowback Water Shifts to Ohio
Perhaps seeing the debate unfold in Pennsylvania, Ohio regulators decided they needed to tackle the issue over disposal of flowback water. In part, the issue was brought to a head by a company, Patriot Energy Partners, who had built and operated a pretreatment center connected to the City of Warren's POTW. The company also was in process to build and operate facilities in Steubenville and East Liverpool.
On May 16th Ohio EPA issued a letter to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources clarifying regulatory authority over the disposal of flowback water. In part, the letter was issued to clear up a debate between the Agencies as to who had regulatory authority since ODNR regulates oil & gas drilling and Ohio EPA regulates POTWs through NPDES permits.
The letter set forth the Agencies regulatory determination on several key issues:
- ODNR has regulatory authority over the disposal of flowback water (letter uses the term "brine")
- POTWs will not be allowed to accept flowback water for disposal (the City of Warren permit will not be renewed)
- Current Ohio law (R.C. 1509.22) only allows disposal of flow back water by the following methods:
- deep well injection into underground formations
- road surface application
- catchall: other approved methods by ODNR
For practical purposes, deep well injection will likely be the primary method of disposal in Ohio unless its shown that dedicated treatment facilities are a cheaper disposal option. Its interesting to note that Pennsylvania has only one commercial deep well and Ohio has approximately 150 wells that may be capable of disposing of flowback water.