As oil and gas production continues to increase across the country, regulatory agencies are doing a better job of improving groundwater protection laws, according to a report released Wednesday from a nonprofit groundwater organization.
“We’re pleased to report the states have made a lot of progress in the last four years,” said Mike Paque, executive director of the Groundwater Protection Council. “We expect to see that trend continue and it’s our very strong belief that it must continue.”
The Groundwater Protection Council released “State Oil and Gas Regulations Designed to Protect Water Resources: 2014 Edition” as a follow-up to its initial report in 2009. It looks at specific areas such as permitting, well plugging, storage pits, storage tanks and spill response regulations in 27 states including Louisiana.
The progress Paque mentioned includes an increase in the number of states that require public notice before a permit is issued, the ability for the state to deny a permit if the company has prior violations and the ability to revoke a permit if it’s not being followed. States have also required more cementing to increase the integrity of wells, better review of groundwater depths during permit review and more reporting on plugging of wells.
“States are on the right track,” Leslie Savage, Groundwater Protection Council board chairwoman and chief geologist with the Texas Railroad Commission, said Wednesday. “But we caution anyone to draw the conclusion that our work is done.”
The report includes little state-specific information, but is instead meant to be an overall look at the current condition of regulations and to provide general considerations as states move forward with additional regulatory needs, Paque said.
Patrick Courreges, state Department of Natural Resources spokesman, said one of the major changes the state made was when Commissioner of Conservation Jim Welsh sent out an advisory in 2008 to oil and gas operators in the Haynesville Shale to use surface water instead of groundwater whenever possible. Within a couple years, the oil and gas operators switched from using a majority of groundwater to a majority of surface water.
Hydraulic fracturing is the process where an oil or gas well is drilled and then the pipe extended horizontally. High pressure fluid is forced into the pipe to fracture the rock containing oil and gas, commonly referred to as fracking.
The Office of Conservation also amended rules to allow oil and gas operators to recycle their produced water back into their well or for other drilling purposes, which reduces volume of ground or surface water needed, according to a 2011 Louisiana Hydraulic Fracturing State Review done by State Review of Oil and Natural Gas Environmental Regulations, Inc.
In 2012, DNR announced a $2.7 million, three-year program with the U.S. Geological Survey to almost double the number of active groundwater monitoring sites around the state to 400. About 100 of the wells were to be located within areas that have hydraulic fracturing activities or are expected to do so in the near future. Long-term funding to extend the program is still uncertain.
Environmental groups agree there is work to be done in protecting water from oil and gas production activities.
Woody Martin, chairman of the Sierra Club Delta Chapter, said the organization would like to see the inclusion of a 90-day public notice to communities on fracking wells, information on how and where fracking water will be disposed, and how the well site will be fixed after the operation is over.
Martin said the organization wants groundwater and air quality monitoring around the well sites in addition to limits on noise, lights and hours of trucking.
Matt Rota, senior policy director with the Gulf Restoration Network, said the taking of water from ground and surface sources brings its own concerns.
“While some might think we are a water-rich state, once water is used for oil and gas extraction, it is basically rendered useless, and while it can sometimes be reused, much of it is left underground or so contaminated, it must be disposed of in injections wells,” Rota wrote.
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