WASHINGTON — For almost as long as there have been oil wells in Texas, drillers have pumped the vast quantities of brackish wastewater that surfaces with the oil into underground wells thousands of feet beneath the Earth’s surface.
But with concern growing that the underlying geology in the Permian Basin and other shale plays are reaching capacity for disposal wells, the Trump administration is examining whether to adjust decades-old federal clean water regulations to allow drillers to discharge wastewater directly into rivers and streams from which communities draw their water supplies.
Technically speaking, drillers are allowed to do this in limited circumstances under federal law, but the process of cleaning salt-, heavy metal- and chemical-laden wastewater to the point it would meet state or federal water standards is so costly that it’s rarely done, experts say.
The Environmental Protection Agency is consulting with experts and conducting public meetings around the country toward making a decision next summer. The primary question is whether water standards can be adjusted so oil and gas companies can economically treat wastewater to be pumped into the water supply without contaminating drinking water supplies or killing off local wildlife.