The Environmental Protection Agency said it planned to regulate wastewater discharged by companies producing natural gas from shale formations, including chemically laced water used in a controversial extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing.
The EPA's initiative comes as water-intensive natural gas production has spread around the country, raising concerns about the effects on drinking-water supplies. The practice, also known as fracking, involves shooting water infused with chemicals and sand at high pressure into shale formations to unlock reservoirs of natural gas.
The EPA will try to determine what to do with water used during fracking, as well as water that is already underground and flows back up the well. Companies now often release the water from the production process into municipal wastewater systems. Those treatment facilities lack the technology to completely remove the chemicals, salt and minerals in the wastewater before sending it into streams and other surface water, said Ben Grumbles, president of Clean Water America Alliance, an association of municipal water districts and private industry.
Barraged with accusations from some congressional Republicans that EPA regulations kill jobs, the agency was careful to say that the new rules were not meant to crimp natural gas production.
"The president has made clear that natural gas has a central role to play in our energy economy," said EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson. "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."
Barry Russell, president of the Independent Petroleum Assn. of America, a trade group, cautiously welcomed the EPA's plans. "The new guidelines EPA develops will then be used by states to regulate specific wastewater discharges," he said in an email. "We stand ready to work with EPA and other stakeholders on the development of these guidelines."
Environmentalists also backed Thursday's announcement. The environmental law group Earthjustice said in a statement: "The nation is in the midst of a fracking-fueled gas rush which is generating toxic wastewater faster than treatment plants can handle it. The EPA's proposal is a common-sense solution for this growing public health problem and will help keep poisons out of our rivers, streams, and drinking water."
The EPA said it would propose rules for wastewater from shale gas production in 2014; it expected to propose similar rules for wastewater from coal-bed methane production in 2013.
On behalf of 63 environmental groups, Earthjustice sent the EPA a letter in early 2010 urging it to expand a study of wastewater from coal-bed methane production to also include water associated with shale gas production.
Shale gas production accounts for 15% of U.S. natural gas output, after beginning at "negligible" levels a few years ago, the EPA said in its statement. While the shale gas boom has created jobs, it has also had an impact on water that is not yet fully understood, the EPA said.
As wastewater from shale gas and coal-bed methane production is regulated, companies will probably have to process and reuse the water, injecting it again into the well to nudge the gas out, Grumbles said.
Once the water can no longer be used, it could potentially be injected into regulated, deep underground storage wells. This year, the state of Pennsylvania, home to a shale gas boom, mandated that companies recycle their wastewater rather than send it through municipal treatment plants, Grumbles said.