Guest Column | May 2, 2017

New Report Offers Long-Awaited Answers About Reusing Oil And Gas Industry's Wastewater

By Holly Pearen, Senior Attorney for Environmental Defense Fund’s US Climate and Energy program

OilWell

A new report from the Oklahoma Water Resources Board’s (OWRB) Produced Water Working Group indicates that oil and gas companies looking for ways to dispose of large volumes of wastewater should focus on recycling those liquids within the oil and gas fields, and not — as some suggest — use it for irrigation or other surface applications where human and environmental exposure is a risk.

The Produced Water Working Group, a panel of 17 state experts convened by Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin in December, 2015, to study various options for wastewater reuse, determined that treating wastewater for use outside of the oil field is not economical, nor are the environmental and health risks well understood.

In fact, the Working Group didn’t evaluate health and environmental risks for any of the 10 alternative uses evaluated. While research into reducing the cost of desalination, by powering treatment facilities with solar or excess lease gas, for example, may be promising, it won’t be sufficient to green light uses that introduce oil and gas wastewater into contact with communities and ecosystems.

To that end, the OWRB recommends that scientific efforts should be devoted to “identifying toxicological risks and protective water quality targets to ensure that the environment and public health are adequately protected under various reuse scenarios.” This is exactly right.

Evaluating the real health and safety impacts of using produced water outside the oilfield will take time and accurate information.

Oklahoma has the time. Governor Fallin wisely convened the Produced Water Working Group to begin identifying and developing potential alternative water sources needed to supply the state with “Water for 2060.” For oil and gas wastewater, it may take a decade to identify and answer the fundamental questions needed to assure the public that new uses don’t cause more problems than they solve.

The Oklahoma Water Resources Board's long-term state-wide energy and water planning gives operators, regulators, researchers and the public enough lead time to meaningfully evaluate wastewater reuse options, and implement policies that protect the public and the environment. The state should take advantage of this lead time to fully address environmental and health risks prior to permitting alternative uses outside the oilfield.

But the report suggests that Oklahomans don’t yet have the necessary data. If the state is serious about considering produced water as a potential new water resource, basic data regarding what is in the water, how much is produced, where it’s produced, and where it goes, should be collected, reported and analyzed. The OWRB report is a good first step. The next step is getting serious about meaningful public health and environmental impacts analysis by collecting basic, readily available, detailed information about this potential resource.

Until then, the Working Group report makes it clear that the most promising near term options for oil and gas wastewater management involve more efficient use of existing infield recycling and disposal techniques.

From Environmental Defense Fund's Energy Exchange Blog

Image credit: "IMG_3152" Paul L. McCord Jr. © 2006 used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/