The United States Environmental Protection Agency recently announced plans to develop regulations for the disposal of flowback water recovered from the hydraulic fracturing of shale formations. Specifically, the EPA announced plans to require that flowback water be pre-treated before it is sent to publicly-operated wastewater treatment plants.
What is flowback?
"Flowback" water is a byproduct of "hydraulic fracturing," a process that facilitates the production of oil and natural gas by using hydraulic pressure to create fractures in low-permeability, underground rock formations. Water, along with sand and a small amount of other additives, is used transmit the hydraulic pressure. After the fracturing is complete, the operator of the oil or gas well that is being fractured allows the pressure of the underground formation to push the water back to the surface, where it is recovered. The recovered water is called "flowback."
Why is the EPA planning to add regulations?
The EPA is responding to concerns that many treatment plants are not designed to remove some of the contaminants found in flowback, which can contain the substances originally added to the fracturing water to facilitate the fracturing process, as well as other substances that dissolve into the fracturing water from the formation being fractured. The other substances that are naturally found underground and which can dissolve into the flowback include salts, metals, and naturally-occurring radioactive materials. Further, the salts sometimes can interfere with the working of wastewater treatment plants, though this usually does not occur because the operators of treatment plants usually combine the flowback with larger streams of water from other sources, so that the concentration of salts is diluted to a concentration level that does not interfere with the operation of treatment plants.
What would the regulations do?
The regulations have not been developed yet, so no one knows exactly what the planned regulations will say. The EPA's announcement suggests that the regulations will require that, prior to flowback being sent to a treatment plant, the water must be pre-treated to remove contaminants that would not be adequately removed by the treatment plant itself or would possibly interfere with the treatment plant's operations.
When will the regulations be complete?
The EPA expects to gather information and input from stakeholders, draft regulations, and then seek public comments in 2014.
Is flowback always sent to treatment plants?
No. Environmental regulations prohibit anyone from discharging flowback directly into streams, lakes, or other surface waters, but that does not mean that all flowback is sent to treatment plants. Operators typically do one of three things with flowback. First, they often dispose of the flowback in underground injection wells, under regulation by the Safe Drinking Water Act. Second, operators sometimes recycle the flowback for use in future fracturing operations, but such recycling is not always feasible. Third, operators sometimes send the flowback to wastewater treatment plants
How was the announcement made?
The EPA announced its plans in its Final 2010 Effluent Guidelines Program Plan. Section 304 of the Clean Water Act requires EPA to publish such a plan every two years to identify sources that discharge water either directly to surface waters or to wastewater treatment plants, and which EPA has selected for new or additional regulations. The EPA published its preliminary 2010 Plan on December 28, 2009 at 74 Fed. Reg. Notice 68599.
Did EPA announce anything else in its Final 2010 Plan?
Yes, EPA announced plans to develop regulations for other types of discharges, including water produced during coalbed methane extraction.
What information is available from EPA?
Information available on EPA's website includes:
- the EPA's news release regarding the Final 2010 plan
- a "Fact Sheet" regarding the plan
- the Federal Register Notice containing the Final 2010 Plan
- the Technical Support Document for the Final 2010 Effluent Guidelines Program Plan
- a page with links to appendices to the technical support document
- a December 2010 Coalbed Methane Extraction Detailed Study Report
- more information on coalbed methane extraction, and
- information on shale gas extraction.