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Increase in Wastewater Pipelines Raises Regulation Questions

Natural gas companies are looking for better, more efficient ways to transport and dispose of contaminated wastewater used in the hydraulic fracturing process. Other shale basins across the United States have employed the use of a pipeline system to transport wastewater to other wells or treatment facilities rather than trucking it to reduce costs and community impacts. Major natural gas companies in Pennsylvania are following suit, though major questions linger about their monitoring to ensure there are no leaks.

Wastewater, or produced water as it is commonly referred to in the natural gas industry, is a salty, chemical-laden brine that is used in the hydraulic fracturing process. Pennsylvania’s natural gas companies have traditionally used a special type of well, known as an injection well, to dispose of produced water. Water is injected thousands of feet below the earth’s surface into salt and hard rock caverns. There are two types of injection wells, enhanced recovery and disposal, both of which are common in Pennsylvania. Permits from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection are required to drill such a well, but regulated federally by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Drillers in Texas’ Permian Basin have moved more swiftly to a different method of disposal: piping it to wastewater treatment facilities. The Permian Basin is a water-starved region. As the fracking process depends on millions of gallons of water, drillers in the Permian Basin have an increased urgency to preserve it.

Natural gas companies in Pennsylvania have taken notice of Texas’ methods and have begun to build produced water pipelines in the Commonwealth. As of today, there are a few hundred miles of produced water pipelines in the state. Though water is not scarce in Pennsylvania, produced water pipelines still has benefits. Piping the water to other well sites for reuse, or to treatment facilities directly reduces the need for heavy trucks to haul the water away.

Fewer trucks on the road translates to less traffic and wear to the roadways, a lower potential for leaks via accidents, and a reduction in diesel exhaust that is emitted into the atmosphere. There are also economic benefits for the industry, as these pipelines ultimately reduce the cost of transporting produced water by eliminating the need for trucking.

The produced water pipeline industry has gained interest from financiers.  Approximately $1 billion of capital has been invested in these pipelines. However, in Pennsylvania, questions remain as to whether these pipelines should be regulated, and if so, by whom.

 As of now, there are no state regulations for produced water pipelines. Because they are not used for a public utility purpose, it is out of the Public Utility Commission’s purview, leaving any sort of regulatory action to the DEP. Additionally, the DEP keeps no comprehensive record of how many pipelines exist in the state or location of these pipelines.

In a statement, Scott Perry, DEP Deputy Secretary of the Office of Oil and Gas Management, acknowledged plans to create a best practices manual for building produced water pipelines. He notes the rapid-speed advancement of this emerging industry has made it difficult for the DEP to create mandates that remained relevant and effective as the industry grows. An additional complication is the lack of employees within the DEP, leaving these pipelines unchecked.

The rise of the shale gas industry in Pennsylvania has created as many opportunities as challenges. As the industry continues to grow and new technologies are developed within the industry, the need for proper oversight is intensified.

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