I have discussed previously the issue with the definition of Waters of The United States (WOTUS). Originally, this was defined as navigable waters, basically major waterways. WOTUS determined which waters were subject to the Clean Water Act (CWA) and under federal jurisdiction.
In an extreme overreach, the Obama administration decided to expand the definition of WOTUS to include things like ditches and irrigation systems. Of course, this resulted in lawsuits and consternation from a variety of industries. These concerns subsided when Trump was elected, and the WOTUS definition reverted back to the original definition.
So, here we are again. New administration, new WOTUS definition. The Biden administration, however, because of a recent Supreme Court ruling (Rapanos v. EPA), knows the aggressive overreach definition won’t fly, so they have issued a new rule that is more aggressive than the original definition of WOTUS, but less aggressive than the Obama-era definition. Additionally, there is another pending case in the Supreme Court (Sackett v. EPA) which will likely require the Biden administration to revise their definition, so it’s not completely over.
Why is this important to oilfield water management? During the Obama era, the WOTUS definition included gathering systems and pits/impoundments that would all fall under the CWA and put significant regulatory burden on the industry. The Trump reversal was a huge relief. That’s not to say the new Biden definition is not concerning.
Let’s take a look at some of the exemptions in the new WOTUS definition, so you can see what an overreach these regulations are. These exemptions include ditches, artificial pools or swimming pools, water-filled depressions, artificial lakes and ponds, and artificially irrigated areas. Can you imagine that without these exemptions, these activities or features would fall under the CWA? Although you can say we have dodged a bullet with the new Biden administration definition and its exclusions, there is still some potential impact.
As an industry, we are moving toward discharging produced water. If these discharges in any way connect to larger water bodies, we could fall back under the WOTUS definition and the CWA. As I have mentioned previously, we will keep an eye on WOTUS, as well as other regulations and regulatory changes to see how they impact the way we do business.
New Mexico’s VOC regulations. While we are on the topic of regulations impacting oilfield water management, I think we should revisit the newly adopted New Mexico VOC regulations. These new rules can be found in Title 20, Part 2, Chapter 50 (effective Aug. 5, 2022). They require the monitoring of VOCs from surface equipment, but they also include produced water gathering, tanks and pits. Initially, it requires the monitoring and reporting of VOCs. In years two and three, you institute a reduction plan. I’m surprised by the number of companies we talk to, who are surprised by this new requirement. One company was open enough to tell me that under this rule, they would be a “super emitter,” loosely defined as someone who emits more than 22 lbs/hr of VOCs. Not the type of label anybody wants.
If you operate in New Mexico, you need to pay attention to this. More importantly, you can mitigate your VOCs as part of your treatment and recycling program. This approach allows you to report significantly lower VOCs and fall under the 2 tons/year requirement to avoid further reductions. I’ve always believed there are never problems, just solutions.
Some background on this new rule, which has been in the works for some time and never passed until last year. As some of you may be aware, the Permian basin was on the EPA’s radar as a non-attainment zone. New Mexico has recorded higher levels, and the VOC rule was the beginning of mitigating this non-attainment concern.
The data in West Texas are much lower not supporting the designation, but the EPA although delaying the decision, seems motivated to pursue this non-attainment standard. Which means rules like New Mexico’s VOC rule could find their way into West Texas. This will be hotly contested in 2023 and emissions data from West Texas support the thought that the non-attainment label does not apply.
But that doesn’t mean this administration won’t try. It’s apparent that the Biden administration is anti-oil-and-gas, so we need to keep an eye on this one for sure. Again, emissions monitoring isn’t just a facilities surface equipment issue, it also involves water handling and treatment.
So, what does all this mean for oilfield water management? We will need to be a little more sophisticated in our approach. We can easily adopt VOC reduction strategies in our treatment processes and become part of the solution. We treat before open tanks to reduce VOCs and eliminate points where the VOC will escape. We also can go to enclosed tanks, if tanks are needed prior to treatment to again prevent VOCs from escaping and becoming an emission.
If our disinfection and iron control strategy involves an oxidizer, then select an oxidizer that can degrade VOCs. Most Advanced Oxidation Processes (AOP) can accomplish this. AOPs are combinations of ozone, peroxide, ultra-violet (UV) light and sometimes ultrasound. UV can have an issue in produced water, as it requires clear water. We have had great success with combinations of ozone and peroxide, but you need to know your chemistry.
Peroxide can also act as a reducer (the opposite of an oxidizer) and reduce your residual disinfection or oxidation potential. So, how this is applied—the right ratio is the key. We’ve seen up to 90% reduction using this AOP method. Again, no problems, just solutions.
I will continue to monitor regulatory impacts to oilfield water management and keep you apprised of the latest situations. But I expect our industry to evolve into a more technology-focused/solutions-focused industry and expect emissions to become a parameter that we pay more attention to—and remember, no problems, only solutions.