Every day, more than 2 billion gallons of water are produced in the US by the oil and gas industry. The water comes up with the oil and gas, and can contain hydrocarbons like benzene and toluene as well as the chemicals that are injected into the well to produce the oil and gas. But the federal government doesn’t treat waste from the energy industry as hazardous, and much of that polluted wastewater is allowed to simply evaporate. Solid waste from oil and gas production is often dumped in large, open air pits. Recently, Inside Energy collaborated with InsideClimateNews and the Center for Public Integrity on a story about oil and gas waste in Texas. Wyoming Public Radio’s Morning Edition host Caroline Ballard sat down with reporters Willow Belden and Stephanie Joyce to talk about the situation in Wyoming.
CAROLINE BALLARD: So Willow, give us a little background. What’s the concern here [in Wyoming]?
WILLOW BELDEN: Well as you know, there’s a huge natural gas field in Sublette County. And emissions from that gas field are causing air pollution. Specifically, a type of pollution called ozone, which is bad for people’s health. A few years ago, the federal government stepped in and basically told Wyoming, “You’re breaking the rules, and you have to fix the problem.” So the Department of Environmental Quality has been trying to do that, for example by imposing stricter emissions rules on new energy equipment. But what we’re learning now is that drilling rigs and other production equipment are not the only places the emissions are coming from. Part of the problem is coming from facilities that treat wastewater from the gas fields.
BALLARD: Why would water facilities be leading to air pollution?
BELDEN: Good question. I talked to Rob Field, who’s an atmospheric scientist at the University of Wyoming. He’s been studying air quality near Pinedale for several years … and here’s how he explained it.
ROB FIELD: Well the water that they receive is polluted with some of the product which we want to extract from oil and gas development, so all of the hydrocarbons. And the job of a water treatment facility is to remove those from the water so the water is clean. By the process of removing those components, where do they go? Well, a lot of them go into the air.
BELDEN: Field has been measuring air quality near a specific water treatment facility in Sublette County and found that downwind of the facility, levels of pollutants like benzene and toluene were pretty high.
BALLARD: So how big a source of emissions is this facility, in the grand scheme of things?
BELDEN: Field says that just downwind of the water treatment facility, the facility itself seems to account for about 50 percent of the air pollution. But when you look at the entire Pinedale Anticline gas field, it’s probably only about 5 percent of emissions.
BALLARD: That’s one facility. So how big a deal is this overall?
BELDEN: Field says it’s a really big deal. Because the kinds of pollutants that this wastewater facility is emitting are highly reactive. In other words, these are the types of pollutants that are most likely to cause ozone to form. And so he says if you want to fix the ozone problem, you need to take these facilities into account.
FIELD: I just think it’s really important that we look at all of the sources, so that we don’t necessarily put an extra burden of let’s say pollution control on maybe a driller when maybe there’s other aspects of the system that we need to look at.
BELDEN: It’s worth noting that the Anticline Disposal Facility is not — let me repeat that: not — doing anything illegal. It’s not a question of “are they violating the rules?” … but rather, “Do we have the right rules in place?” And it’s also worth noting that this facility is not unique. This is an issue that Field says we should be addressing across the country.
FIELD: We need to really be aware of water treatment, not just for Wyoming, but also nationwide. Because Wyoming is not the only state in the country which has produced water which needs to be cleaned.
STEPHANIE JOYCE: And let me jump in here. In other places, the concern isn’t just for the impact those emissions might be having on ozone. At places like the Nordheim Disposal Facility in Texas, which is being constructed near a school, people are also concerned about what the direct health impacts might be. As Willow mentioned, these facilities are emitting things we know are bad for humans, like benzene and toluene — we just don’t know if they’re being emitted in quantities that we should worry about.
BALLARD: Could the direct health impacts potentially be a problem in Wyoming?
JOYCE: Well, maybe. I mean, Wyoming is obviously less populated than a lot of other places that deal with these wastewater disposal facilities. And in Wyoming, there’s a requirement that the facilities have a 1-mile buffer from any inhabited dwelling, but that doesn’t include roads, for example. So if you’ve taken a drive along Highway 59 recently, you probably noticed there’s a new wastewater disposal facility a few hundred feet from the road. And so, also, in addition to the 35 existing commercial wastewater disposal pits in Wyoming, there are seven that are proposed or under construction right now.
BALLARD: What kind of monitoring is the state going to require for those facilities?
JOYCE: Right now, the state requires companies to provide emissions estimates, which are based on sampling the liquids coming into the facilities, but there’s no cap on what can be emitted. The Department of Environmental Quality does require companies to use what’s known as “Best Available Control Technology” — so, basically, to keep their emissions as low as possible. But since there’s no direct measurement of the emissions — just those estimates, it’s hard to say how effective that is.
BALLARD: Are there plans to require direct measurements in the future?
JOYCE: Well, the DEQ does seem to have realized that it’s a problem that they don’t know what and how much is being emitted. And they did just propose a study to directly measure emissions from one of these facilities in the Upper Green River Basin. But whether that will lead a change in the overall rules remains to be seen.
BALLARD: And if their results support what Rob Field found at that single facility, what can be done to reduce emissions from these facilities?
BELDEN: What Rob Field suggested is covering these facilities, so the polluted water wouldn’t evaporate into the air. But of course that’s expensive to do.
JOYCE: An alternative would be to simple ban evaporation pits altogether, and require companies to inject the fluids underground and several other states have done that. But that comes with its own host of problems and I don’t think that’s on the table in Wyoming.
BALLARD :I just speaking with reporters Stephanie Joyce and Willow Belden, who have been looking into problems with wastewater disposal from oil and gas. Thanks for speaking with me.
JOYCE: Thank you
- Read InsideClimateNews’ in-depth exploration of this issue here.