Will Texas’ New Law On Fracking Wastewater Research Help Protect Our Waters?

produced water being dumped behind wire gate

By Alex Ortiz, the Lone Star Chapter’s Water Resources Specialist

Now that the legislative session is over, Governor Greg Abbott has been busy signing and vetoing bills. On Friday June 18, Gov. Abbott signed Senate Bill 601, creating the Texas Produced Water Consortium at Texas Tech. The bill took effect immediately rather than waiting until the new fiscal year like most bills, meaning that Texas Tech will likely begin preparing for the first consortium soon.

We felt that the original draft of the bill needed significant improvements. SB 601 initially excluded key environmental groups  and even the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD), which has an important role in protecting Texas waters. Thankfully, with work from the bill’s author, Senate Water, Agriculture, and Rural Affairs Committee Chairman Charles Perry (R – Lubbock), along with the Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter, our allies at Environmental Defense Fund, and a wide group of environmental and community interests, we saw changes that added TPWD and environmental stakeholders to the consortium’s work, as well as more holistic evaluation of public health and environmental impacts. 

This bill might seem kind of niche, so you might have some reasonable questions: What is produced water anyway? What is this “consortium” business and why did Texas want one? Who’s going to be included? Let’s get into it.

What is produced water and what happens to it now?

Produced water is a byproduct of fracking operations. It’s essentially wasted water that has become a cocktail full of chemicals (some that we know about, some that we don’t). Many of these chemicals that are mixed into the water are protected by trade secrets or some other intellectual property law, which means that most people- including Sierra Club- don’t know all the chemicals that are in produced water. 

During fracking, water is mixed with various chemicals and injected at high pressure into the ground to fracture the ground and release natural gas. The water that’s injected underground mixes with the natural gas, brine, (naturally occuring saltwater) technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive materials (TENORM), and other materials. The produced water that comes back up is full of constituent chemicals, which refers to the chemicals intentionally used in the fracking process as well as TENORM, natural gas itself, and the other chemicals it interacts with underground.

In January, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began allowing the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to permit produced wastewater discharges. This alarmed us and partner organizations because we did not trust that TCEQ, a notoriously industry-friendly agency, would handle produced water responsibly, especially since federal regulations on produced water are already much too lax. Specifically, there’s a federal rule that allows companies to directly discharge produced water into fresh water, under remarkably minimal conditions that would prevent them from doing so. This means that if a fracking company meets minimum regulation guidelines, then produced water could go into our streams and lakes used for recreation and drinking water. 

As of April, there had been no new applications to TCEQ for permits to discharge produced water, which is good! Currently, the primary disposal of produced water has been injection wells, where the wastewater is pumped underground and sealed away as waste. (But even injection wells full of produced water still pose a threat to public health and water quality).

What is the point of the Texas Produced Water Consortium?

The Texas Produced Water Consortium’s purpose is “to bring together information resources to study the economics of and technology related to, and the environmental and public health considerations for, beneficial uses of fluid oil and gas waste.”

This is not a bad thing, though the narrative surrounding produced water becomes sticky very quickly. This is why it was important that we lobbied for SB 601 to actually include water experts and environmental interests in the consortium, and not just oil and gas industry representatives. 

At present, there are chemicals in produced water that have no EPA-approved analytical methods, no water quality criteria or standards, and have insufficient toxicity or radioactivity data. The consortium’s research goals ought to include the feasibility of beneficial uses, and the treatment standards and analytical methods that get us to a usable product. Treatment standards means those standards that the water must be treated to before being safe for a beneficial use, while “analytical methods” means a method that EPA uses to analyze components of wastewater.

The Agency Advisory Council’s primary job will be providing input on the regulation and permitting of produced water, including treatment standards, while the Stakeholder Advisory Council’s is to advise the consortium relating to research, investigation, and contract development. The Technical and Economic Steering Committee will have ultimate discretion to “determine the feasibility of proposals for research or investigation by the consortium and decide which proposals the consortium will accept for research or investigation.”

Additionally, the new law requires that the Consortium engages in stakeholder outreach, specifically by soliciting participation from “the oil and gas industry; agricultural water users; industrial water users; environmental interests; fluid oil and gas waste recycling operators; commercial water recyclers and midstream water companies; landowners; owners of groundwater rights; public water utilities; and river authorities.” Texas Tech must also coordinate with other state universities to be sure that there are sufficiently available resources and outreach.

Who will be part of the Texas Produced Water Consortium?

Texas Tech University will be the primary manager of the Texas Produced Water Consortium, and the Consortium is made up of the “Host University” (Texas Tech), the Agency Advisory Council, the Stakeholder Advisory Council, the technical and economic steering committee, and private entities that pay membership fees to be consortium members.

The Stakeholder Advisory Council will be appointed by Texas Tech from paying members of the consortium made up of representatives from: “the oil and gas industry; agricultural water users; industrial water users; environmental interests; fluid oil and gas waste recycling operators; public water utilities; landowners or owners of groundwater rights; commercial water recyclers and midstream water companies; and other appropriate interests or industries.” 

Here, there is a noticeable absence of downstream interests. In Texas, it’s a fairly safe bet that most water ends up in the Gulf of Mexico. The Sierra Club is hopeful and committed to working with the consortium and other state public universities to be sure to include downstream community interests, including those in Southwest / South Texas.

The members of the Agency Advisory Council will be selected by state agencies including TCEQ, Texas Water Development Board, TPWD, Texas Department of Agriculture, General Land Office, Railroad Commission of Texas, State Energy Conservation Office, and Texas Economic Development and Tourism Office.

The Technical and Economic Steering Committee will be appointed by Texas Tech to represent “technical, economic, and scientific expertise,” according to the new law.

What’s next?

Ultimately, the Lone Star Chapter is hopeful that when EPA Region 6 (which oversees environmental issues in TX, NM, AR, LA, and OK) has a new regional administrator, we will see continuous EPA leadership and engagement on the issues surrounding analytical methods and the regulatory deficiencies at the federal level. We’re also committed to ongoing participation as an environmental interest at the state level, and we’re eager to work with Texas Tech and the Texas Produced Water Consortium to advance sustainable water and to develop sufficiently protective treatment standards and regulations.