EPA announced last week that, by 2014, it will propose rules governing pre-treatment standards for water discharges from shale gas fracking operations. As part of the Agency’s effluent guideline program, the shale gas wastewater discharge standards will impose federal pre-treatment standards for all operations disposing of wastewater from shale gas operations. As this blog noted back in March, the development of effluent limit guidelines (ELGs) for fracking operations was anticipated.

Concern was first raised by the New York Times this Spring over the salinity and potential radioactivity associated with flowback water being treated at wastewater treatment plants in the Marcellus. Critics have also voiced concerns about the potential for drilling wastewater to overwhelm treatment plants and adversely affect their treatment systems. Tests released by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) downstream from treatment plants, however, have shown no elevated levels of radiation or other pass through contaminants.

Many in the industry see EPA’s move as an overreaction to a localized problem, which strips the state-based regulatory scheme of needed flexibility. For example, while local geology in the Marcellus prevents re-injection of drilling wastewater, in many other areas of the country the wastewater is re-injected under permit. Chemical, metal, or toxic constituents in produced and flowback water can also differ dramatically from one area of the country to another.

The proposed shale gas rules are not expected for two to three years largely because EPA will need to collect the necessary data. Over the next several years, companies should be expecting a large data collection effort by the Agency, including questionnaires and surveys, site visits, and other information gathering. It will be critical for drilling companies—particularly in geographic locations where re-injection is not prominent—to be developing their own data on the wastewater characteristics of their operations (i.e., volume, constituent make up, disposal methods).

The development of shale gas ELGs will also contain a significant technological and economic component, as EPA is required to promulgate technological controls based on what is economically achievable for the industry. As Bridget DiCosmo noted in an October 24, 2011 Inside EPA article, the varying and recently decreasing price of natural gas has affected what is economically feasible for coal-bed-methane, and will likely play a factor for the Agency’s shale gas standard as well. Coordination on an industry-wide level will be needed to understand the available treatment technologies and develop data on the projected cost profile of these technologies.

In short, this ELG effort will be a monumental and complex task—particularly given the wide array of wastewater characteristics and disposal practices throughout the country. Coordination is advised on an industry-wide basis early so that the whole industry can develop its own data, including cost impacts, should it ever need to dispute EPA’s record.