Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Vague rules on reporting wastewater spills in Texas causing confusion in oil and gas industry

Some states, like Texas, don't track wastewater spills from oil and gas operations that can cause severe environmental damage. The Texas Railroad Commission not only fails to track wastewater spills but "the rules are so vague and unenforceable that insiders say companies don't even need to notify state officials when they have a spill," Mike Soraghan reports for EnergyWire. "Many consider notifying RRC about waste spills to be voluntary, though the agency insists otherwise. Most other states with oil and gas producers track wastewater spills and require drillers to report them. But while Texas tracks spills of crude oil and condensate, its records leave out spills of the waste fluid often called 'salt water' or 'produced water.'" (U.S. Fish and Wildlife photo: Corroded flowlines leaked oil and wastewater into the Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge)

Former Texas Railroad Commission executive director John Tintera "said a requirement that spills be cleaned up is unenforceable if they don't get reported," Soraghan writes. He told Soraghan, "The notion that salt water spills can be effectively regulated without even requiring spills to be reported is ludicrous." But such spills make up a large portion of pollution from oil and gas wells. For instance, in New Mexico, 55 percent of spills reported in 2014 were wastewater-only, and in Oklahoma, 36 percent were wastewater-only.

The main problem is that rules for reporting spills are confusing, Soraghan writes. While "the RRC has specific requirements for reporting oil and condensate spills of five barrels or more . . . there is no specific reporting requirement for reporting brine spills," which a study by a Duke University doctoral candidate found to more severe and longer-lasting than oil releases.

An RRC spokeswoman "said brine spills are covered under requirements to notify the agency about releases of 'other well liquids,'" Soraghan writes. That's not how everyone else sees interprets the rules. Richard Brantley, associate director of the Midland office of the University of Texas's University Lands "said that reporting wastewater spills to the Railroad Commission is voluntary." Heather Palmer, a lawyer who advises clients on the environmental issues surrounding oil and gas development, "says it's her understanding that companies must report brine spills by phone and follow up with a letter. But there is some confusion, she said, because there is no threshold for reporting brine, unlike the five-barrel threshold for oil. So it's not clear what counts as a spill. That makes for some subjective decisions in the field."

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