What Is Fracking Wastewater and How Should We Manage It?

Vol. 28 No. 3

Mr. Mills is a partner in the Sacramento, California, office, and Ms. Seifried is an associate in the Portland, Oregon, office of Stoel Rives LLP.

Today, one cannot browse through the environmental news without finding an article touting the environmental hazards arising from, or the economic benefits derived from, hydraulic fracturing (commonly known as “fracking”). On the hazards side, concerns relating to fracking are as broad and diverse as the potential for contamination of drinking water by oil, gas, or fracking fluids; earthquakes induced by fracking activities; and livestock ailments induced by nearby fracking operations. On the benefits side, there are increases in domestic oil and gas production and a reduced reliance on foreign sources of hydrocarbons and energy. This article will not provide a definitive answer as to whether fracking is ultimately “good” or bad” for our society considering all the potential economic and environmental impacts that technology may create. Rather, this article addresses more specific, tangible questions: what are the potential environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing specifically relating to the wastewater that results from fracking operations, and how should those impacts be addressed under current and developing laws?

One of the primary concerns cited by government, industry, academic, and environmental experts alike relating to fracking is the management of wastewater. Among most of these experts, there is a high degree of consensus that the on-site storage and the disposal of fracking wastewater pose some risk to the quality of surface water and groundwater. These risks relate directly to the chemical constituents in fracking wastewater, originating from the fracking fluids themselves or the composition of naturally occurring produced water associated with oil or gas extraction, and whether or not these chemicals can or do migrate to surface waters or groundwater aquifers at concentrations significant enough to harm human health or the environment. Another potential risk commonly discussed in association with fracking wastewater, is induced seismicity. However, regulators have indicated that this risk is more accurately associated with oil and gas drilling operations generally and not specifically with fracking. Although disposal by injection may be related to induced seismicity in some circumstances, it is only in connection with deep injection over long periods of time, which is not typically required to dispose of fracking wastewater.

Most of the potential environmental risks associated with fracking wastewater are already regulated to some degree by local, state, and federal agencies. These agencies regulate the major areas of potential risk identified by experts: the on-site storage of fracking wastewater and the disposition of fracking wastewater, including disposal by injection, indirect discharge through wastewater treatment plants, and reuse for fracking or other purposes. Of course, environmental groups and industry representatives disagree as to whether the current regulations are adequate and as to the type and extent of additional regulations necessary to minimize the potential risks associated with fracking wastewater and to ensure storage and disposal of these fluids in a manner that is safe for human health and the environment.

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