Water management

Texas Moves Ahead on Discharging Oil Waste Water, Even as EPA Balks

Oil drilling produces up to 10 gallons of water for every barrel of oil. While the Environmental Protection Agency has balked at allowing oil companies to treat drilling waste water and discharge it into streams, oil-rich states, including Texas, are moving forward with plans to permit it.

Drillers making pipe connections on drill floor
Credit: Brittany Sowacke/Bloomberg.

Environmental officials in Texas and other western states are moving ahead on plans to allow oil and gas companies to treat drilling waste water and discharge it into rivers and streams, even as the Trump administration balks at endorsing the practice amid widespread questions about public health effects.

In a report last month, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) not only outlined concerns from scientists and environmentalists about the toxins in the hundreds of billions of gallons of waste water produced each year by oil and gas drilling but also from oil companies themselves.

One large company, the report noted, was troubled by proposals to allow treated wastewater to irrigate crops or get dumped into public waterways, citing “a lack of science around treatment efficacy and associated liability risks.” Companies across the board said that disposal wells that store wastewater underground remain a far cheaper option.

“It doesn’t indicate there’s any pathway forward,” Lee Fuller, vice president of government relations at the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said of the EPA report. “At this point, the only real only opportunities for reuse are within the production operations in the field, displacing the fresh water needed for hydraulic fracturing.”

Oil and gas drilling produces up to 10 barrels of contaminated water for every barrel of crude from two main sources: naturally occurring brackish water that comes up the well with oil and gas and the millions of gallons of chemical-laced water that fracturing crews pump into each well to release oil and gas from shale. Historically, the waste water is pumped thousands of feet underground into what are known as injection wells as to not contaminate drinking water.

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