EPA to Regulate Wastewater from Fracking

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced plans Thursday to develop national standards for the disposal of wastewater generated by the natural gas extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson said the agency will begin the process of developing a standard with input from stakeholders, including the natural gas industry and public health groups.

“The president has made clear that natural gas has a central role to play in our energy economy. That is why we are taking steps -- in coordination with our federal partners and informed by the input of industry experts, states and public health organizations -- to make sure the needs of our energy future are met safely and responsibly,” Jackson said in a statement. "We can protect the health of American families and communities at the same time we ensure access to all of the important resources that make up our energy economy. The American people expect and deserve nothing less.”

The announcement comes as the water-intensive and controversial process has expanded in many areas of the country, raising concerns about impacts on drinking water supplies. The fracking process involves injecting chemical-laced water and sand at high pressure into shale formations to release previously inaccessible stores of natural gas.

Production from shale formations has grown from a negligible amount just a few years ago to almost 15 percent of total U.S. natural gas production and this share is expected to triple in the coming decades.

Currently, wastewater associated with shale gas extraction is prohibited from being directly discharged to waterways, according to the EPA statement. While some of the wastewater from shale gas extraction is reused or re-injected, a significant amount still requires disposal. As a result, some shale gas wastewater is transported to treatment plants, many of which are not properly equipped to treat that type of wastewater. EPA will consider standards based on demonstrated, economically achievable technologies that must be met before wastewater from the fracking process can go to a treatment facility.

Further information on EPA’s announcement can be found here.

Hydraulic fracturing will be the subject of a program Dec. 1 at ACWA’s 2011 Fall Conference & Exhibition in Anaheim. Expert panelists will provide the basics on how fracking works, where it is happening in California, potential risks to water systems and implications for energy use now and in the future.

More on the ACWA conference is available here.