Industry News

Drilling Waste Deserves the Same Scrutiny as Wastewater

June 6, 2018

In 2016, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia issued a consent decree which requires EPA to either sign a notice of proposed rulemaking for the revision of the state plan guidelines pertaining to oil and gas wastes, or sign a determination that revision of the state plan guidelines is not appropriate. This decree was a result of a lawsuit filed by the Environmental Integrity Project, et al., who alleged that the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) places a duty on EPA that “[e]ach regulation promulgated under this chapter shall be reviewed and, where necessary, revised not less frequently than every three years.” Plaintiffs also alleged that EPA failed to comply with this mandatory duty (Case 1:16-cv-00842-JDB Document 33 Filed 12/28/16).

Currently, EPA is embarking on a new study that will take a holistic look at how the EPA, states, and stakeholders regulate and manage wastewater from the oil and gas industry (EPA Seeks Input for Study on Management of Waste Water, SPE HSE NOW, May 2018). Wastewater is the largest waste stream generated by exploration and production activities, and includes both flowback water from hydraulic fracturing operations as well as produced water, which is water that comes to the surface during oil and gas production over the life of a well. For more than half of a century, the oil and gas industry has primarily managed wastewater using underground injection.

Although regulators and industry have developed ways to effectively manage this wastewater, large volumes of drilling wastes are generated by drilling activities every year. According to Scott Energy Technologies LLC, there were over 391,000,000 bbls of drilling waste generated on U.S. Land in 2014 alone. Unlike wastewater, drilling wastes are comprised of various types of drilling fluids and drilled cuttings, much of which is considered to be solid waste, which often requires different waste management methods than wastewater. This waste can contain salts, heavy metals, and hydrocarbons, including diesel, which is commonly used as the base fluid for horizontal drilling. State regulation and enforcement of drilling wastes vary dramatically, and most regulations were drafted prior to the proliferation of drilling unconventional (horizontal) wells. Regardless of the drilling fluids used, drilling wastes will contain constituents that are encountered deep beneath the surface of the earth, trapped within the formations that are being drilled.

The management of drilling waste is a complex issue that deserves review and input by qualified personnel.

Disposal practices for drilling wastes are as important to protection of human health and the environment as the disposal of the wastewater; however, drilling wastes rarely get the same degree of focus. In addition to taking a look at how the states regulate (and industry manages) wastewater, EPA should also review the management and oversight of drilling wastes and include that information in its determination. The management of drilling waste is a complex issue that deserves review and input by qualified personnel.

This article was written by Jeffrey Tyson, P.E. Copyright 2018 Scott Energy Technologies LLC

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