Hydraulic Fracturing Environmental Issues

Because natural gas development is increasing rapidly in many regions, prudent steps to reduce these impacts are essential now even as further research to understand potential risks continues. EPA is:

Ensuring that hydraulic fracturing using diesel fuels is properly permitted

A core element of the Safe Drinking Water Act's (SDWA) Underground Injection Control (UIC) program is setting requirements for proper well siting, construction, and operation to minimize risks to underground sources of drinking water. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 excluded hydraulic fracturing, except when diesel fuels are used, for oil, gas or geothermal production from regulation under the UIC program. This statutory language caused regulators and the regulated community alike to raise questions about the applicability of permitting practices.

EPA has developed revised UIC Class II permitting guidance specific to oil and gas hydraulic fracturing activities using diesel fuels. Although developed specifically for hydraulic fracturing where diesel fuels are used, many of the guidance’s recommended practices are consistent with best practices for hydraulic fracturing in general, including those found in state regulations and model guidelines for hydraulic fracturing developed by industry and stakeholders. Thus, states and tribes responsible for issuing permits and/or updating regulations for hydraulic fracturing will find the recommendations useful in improving the protection of underground sources of drinking water and public health wherever hydraulic fracturing occurs.

EPA is issuing the guidance alongside an interpretive memorandum, which clarifies that Class II UIC requirements apply to hydraulic fracturing activities using diesel fuels, and defines the statutory term “diesel fuel” by reference to five chemical abstract services registry numbers. The guidance outlines for EPA permit writers, where EPA is the permitting authority, (i) existing Class II requirements for diesel fuels used for hydraulic fracturing wells, and (ii) technical recommendations for permitting those wells consistently with these requirements.

Ensuring the safe management of wastewater, stormwater, and other wastes from hydraulic fracturing activities

As the number of shale gas wells in the U.S. increases, so too does the volume of shale gas wastewater that requires disposal. Wastewater associated with shale gas extraction can contain high levels of salt content also called or TDS. The wastewater can also contain various organic chemicals, inorganic chemicals, metals, and naturally occurring radioactive materials (also referred to as technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive material or TENORM). In partnership with states, EPA is examining the different management methods employed by industry to ensure that there are regulatory and permitting frameworks in place to provide safe and legal options for disposal of flowback and produced water. These options include:

Underground injection of waste disposal fluids from oil and gas wells (Class II wells)

In many regions of the U.S., underground injection is the most common method of disposing of fluids or other substances from shale gas extraction operations. Disposal of flowback and produced water via underground injection is regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act's Underground Injection Control (UIC) program.

Wastewater discharges to treatment facilities

The Clean Water Act (CWA) effluent guidelines program sets national standards for industrial wastewater discharges to surface waters and municipal sewage treatment plants based on the performance of treatment and control technologies. Effluent guidelines for on-shore oil and gas extraction facilities prohibit the discharge of pollutants into surface waters, except for wastewater that is of good enough quality for use in agricultural and wildlife propagation for those onshore facilities located in the continental United States and west of the 98th meridian.

Related study of private wastewater treatment facilities: EPA is conducting a study of private wastewater treatment facilities (also known as centralized waste treatment, or CWT, facilities) accepting oil and gas extraction wastewater. EPA is collecting data and information related to the extent to which CWT facilities accept such wastewater, available treatment technologies (and their associated costs), discharge characteristics, financial characteristics of CWT facilities, the environmental impacts of discharges from CWT facilities, and other relevant information.

Stormwater discharges from oil and gas operations or transmission facilities

Under the CWA, oil and gas exploration, production, processing, or treatment operations or transmission facilities, including associated construction activities, are not required to obtain National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit coverage for stormwater discharges unless there is a reportable quantity spill or the discharge causes or contributes to a water quality violation.

Use of surface impoundments (pits or ponds) for storage or disposal

In some cases, operators use surface storage tanks and pits to temporarily store hydraulic fracturing fluids for re-use or until arrangements are made for disposal. In addition, other wastes are generated during the well drilling, stimulation, and production stages. States, tribes, and some local governments have primary responsibility for adopting and implementing programs to ensure proper management of these wastes.

Recycling of wastewater

Some drilling operators elect to re-use a portion of the wastewater to replace and/or supplement fresh water in formulating fracturing fluid for a future well or re-fracturing the same well. Re-use of shale gas wastewater is, in part, dependent on the levels of pollutants in the wastewater and the proximity of other fracturing sites that might re-use the wastewater. This practice has the potential to reduce discharges to treatment facilities or surface waters, minimize underground injection of wastewater and conserve water resources.

Addressing air quality impacts associated with hydraulic fracturing activities

There have been well-documented air quality impacts in areas with active natural gas development, with increases in emissions of methane, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and hazardous air pollutants (HAPs). EPA, the Department of the Interior, other federal agencies and states are working to better characterize and reduce these air emissions and their associated impacts. Through the Natural Gas STAR program, EPA and partner companies have identified technologies and practices that can cost-effectively reduce methane emissions from the oil and natural gas sector in the U.S. and abroad. Through the Clean Construction USA program, EPA is promoting newer, more efficient technology and cleaner fuels to innovate the ways in which hydraulic fracturing equipment and vehicles reduce emissions. EPA also administers Clean Air Act regulations for oil and natural gas production, including regulations on reporting greenhouse gas emissions.

Assuring Compliance

EPA targets enforcement to ensure compliance with laws and regulations, with an emphasis on correcting violations with significant potential harm to human health and the environment. In addition to self-directed investigations, EPA receives thousands of leads and incident reports relating to oil and gas activities that could impact air or water quality. EPA works with state and local governments to respond to incidents, encourage diligent accident prevention, and provide effective and prompt response when emergencies occur. EPA's offices around the nation ("Regions" or "Regional offices") provide guidance and grants to state regulators, perform inspections, conduct enforcement actions, and issue permits and information request letters, in order to ensure that existing laws are effectively implemented.

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