Fracking water disposal site causes deep divide

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March 12th, 2015

Temporary drilling equipment marks the site of the proposed waste-water injection well in Sioux County. (Courtesy NET)

Temporary drilling equipment marks the site of the proposed waste-water injection well in Sioux County. (Courtesy NET)

A plan to allow a Colorado company to ship waste water from shale oil fracking operations and then stored at a Western Nebraska injection well is being met with some fairly determined opposition.  A Nebraska unicameral hearing Wednesday looked into some of the contentious issues surrounding the project.


 

Omaha, NE – The proposal calls for waste water from oil and gas recovery operations to be shipped to a storage site in Sioux County Nebraska.

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That storage site would be managed by Terex Energy Corporation of Broomfield, Colorado. The waste water and other undisclosed chemicals are a byproduct of hydraulic fracturing or fracking. Fracking is a process where oil and gas trapped between layers of shale and rock are released after being fractured apart by a high pressure water and chemical mixture.

The waste water is then normally pumped back into the ground after the oil has been removed.

Ken Winston is a policy advocate at the Nebraska chapter of the Sierra Club. Winston said there are a lot of questions that need to be answered about this proposal. The water wouldn’t go directly into the Ogallala aquifer, but it would travel through the aquifer in the well drilling pipe.

“We have additional concerns if there were a leak into an aquifer,” Winston said. “One of the things that proponents will say is that it is being injected into a layer that is far beneath the drinking water aquifers or the irrigation on the surface. But it has to pass through the layers where the aquifers are located. Leaks of fracking fluid have been connected with contamination of aquifers in several other states including California.”

Winston noted the content of the waste water often contains hazardous or radioactive material which would cause severe issues if a surface spill were to occur. He said fresh water is Nebraska’s lifeblood, saying the Ogallala aquifer is the nation’s largest aquifer.

“For human use and also because of the fact that our agricultural community relies so heavily on having adequate supplies of water,” Winston said.

Bill Sydow is the Director of the Nebraska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. His agency has been involved in underground injections as a regulated industry since 1959. Sydow said NOGCC currently has over 600 enhanced oil recovery and disposal wells in their inventory. This includes 115 just like the one currently being proposed.

Sydow said the remaining waste water has many essentials found in the common household including sodium, potassium, calcium, bromine, magnesium, chloride, sulfates and bicarbonates.

Winston said he has an issue with companies’ ability to list certain materials in the waste water as proprietary information that cannot be disclosed.

“Frankly, the fact that something is being disposed of as a waste material or a waste by product, we think there is no reason to not disclose every component that is in it,” Winston said. “So people know what potential impact it could have if there were a spill.”

Sydow agreed it is an important issue and cannot be overlooked. His reasoning, however, differed from Winston’s.

“We produce nearly 59 million barrels of water to recover 2.8 million barrels of oil,” Sydow said. “The industry has to lift about 21 barrels of water for every barrel of oil that they produce out of the underground. “

Sydow said this idea isn’t novel, even to Nebraska.

“We got water today that’s comes into Kimball county from Wyoming into a commercial injection well, yet no one has complained,” Sydow said. “We have water that comes in from Kansas in Southwest Nebraska and we’ve got water that actually goes from Nebraska to Kansas via truck. The idea is to have some funds available not only for our commission but also maybe for roads and bridges in the state.”

Sydow said the proposal shows an initial 10,000 barrels of waste water would be injected daily.

“This method is safe, it is regulated, there are underground injection control programs created to protect drinking water,” Sydow said. “We have injection well of some type in 18 of our 20 producing counties today.”

Sydow and Winston disagree on many details at the heart of the issue. Winston said while this differs in many ways from the ongoing fight for the Keystone XL pipeline in Nebraska, he sees parallels.

“They are different in terms of the scale, because of the fact that the proposed pipeline in something that has attracted national and international attention,” Winston said. “This is more of a localized issue, but the potential for damage to the environment is very similar and perhaps might even be greater.”

The Natural Resources Committee held a hearing at the Nebraska unicameral Wednesday to discuss, LB 512, a bill introduced by State Sen. John Stinner of Gering, that would place a tax of 20 cents per barrel on wastewater. Sydow said money would be used to preserve roads and monitor the quality of water.

The Sierra Club of Nebraska offered testimony at Wednesday’s hearing, asking the committee to place a moratorium on imports of waste water until precautions can be added. Many opponents of fracking were proponents of the bill but several agreed this bill wasn’t as aggressive toward companies wanting to ship waste water to Nebraska in the form of higher taxes or penalties. No action was taken by the committee.

There is also a hearing in front of the Oil and Gas Commission in Sidney, Nebraska scheduled for March 24.

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