Federal regulators have nixed Wyoming’s plan to accommodate expected growth in the oil and gas industry by increasing pollution limits in a 20-mile stream that flows into the Boysen Reservoir.
Badwater Creek is already polluted. When the water is low during the winter, the stream can contain triple the amount of chloride that would be deemed acutely toxic for that type of creek. It receives a mixture of produced and treated water used in oil and gas production from wells in Aethon Energy’s Moneta Divide gas field.
It has done so for 55 years.
But with about 4,000 wells proposed in an expansion of that project, it’s likely that Badwater will experience much greater volumes of discharged water, introducing a challenge for Badwater, regulators, the oil and gas company and environmentalists.
More is less
Badwater Creek is classified as a very good water source, the second highest classification in the state. But the 20 miles under consideration haven’t met chloride standards for decades. The permit to discharge oil and gas water in Badwater was grandfathered in from before the Clean Water Act of 1972.
The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality suggested the new threshold is on the low end of current fluoride pollution.
State regulators say they were attempting to find a reasonable limit for the stream as it exists today. Though about double the standard, the proposed limit is lower than existing pollution.
“It wasn’t allowing further degradation,” said Kevin Frederick, administrator of the DEQ’s Water Quality Division. “In fact, it should have been improving water quality in Badwater Creek.”
The Department of Environmental Quality was set to bring its idea to an advisory board Thursday in Casper. The subject was pulled from the agenda due to a last-minute critique from the Environmental Protection Agency.
Wyoming implements federal law like the Clean Water Act, but the EPA still oversees that work. In a case like Badwater, where the state wants to have a unique standard for a unique body of water, the EPA has to approve it.
In this case, the federal agency based in Denver instructed Wyoming to collect more data before it determines the standard for Badwater Creek, Frederick said.
“We haven’t got a problem with that,” he said. “We felt that the argument that we set out … was a reasonable and valid one. At the end of the day EPA has final approval on these sorts of things.”
A water question
Aethon, like many oil and gas firms looking to develop in Wyoming, has a water challenge.
The Moneta Divide natural gas project would bring significant revenue to Wyoming, but it would also produce up to 1 million barrels of water per day. Encana, which originally proposed the Moneta project, brought a water treatment facility in 2015 to dilute produced water with treated water and keep limits from spiking with additional production.
There is simply a lot of water naturally in this field, said Tom Nelson, vice president of development for the Dallas-based company.
Because of the amount of water, the company has the advantage of reusing it for completions, but the amount that will have to be disposed of is considerable.
In addition to surface release of produced water, the company is considering injecting the water underground.
Encana sought to inject the salty water into the Madison aquifer. That was nixed by the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission in 2016 — a reversal of an earlier vote — because the company couldn’t show that the water would stay put and not migrate to drinking water sources.
Aethon is trying again to get injection wells, though in different locations. It’s submitted five applications to the state. Two have approval from Wyoming but still need EPA approval. Three are still being reviewed by the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
The company has also had a private consultant consider the downstream impacts of releasing more water into Badwater Creek and shared those studies with the Department of Environmental Quality. The concern is how the creek will affect both the Boysen Reservoir and the Wind River.
“We’re going to comply with the regulations, whatever they are. We also want to be good stewards,” Nelson said. “That’s a tightrope that we are prepared to walk on.”
The Bureau of Land Management, which assesses the environmental impacts of large oil and gas projects, is attempting to complete the draft study on Moneta by April. It will detail the breadth of the water impact.
“Water issues are a major concern within the (study) area, both for injection and also for downstream,” said Mike Phillips, acting field manager for the Lander Field Office.
How much is too much?
Moneta poses no small challenge to oil operators, or state regulators, but the attempted Badwater compromise is not a comfortable deal for those watching water quality issues in Wyoming.
“I think most people would assume that pollution like the type we are talking here is just not permitted in Wyoming’s surface water,” said Dan Heilig, senior conservation advocate at the Wyoming Outdoor Council. “But under the existing regulatory system, pollution is allowed all the time. It’s up to the DEQ to decide how much.”
This would be too much for Badwater Creek, he said.
The stream feeds Boysen but is also connected to the Wind River — a water resource in the state with the highest standards.
The state regulators were upfront in their documents, explaining that their decision was made to accommodate the oil and gas development, Heilig said.
“Oil and gas provides important revenue to the state,” he said. “The question here is whether we are going to put the interests of oil and gas ahead of the public interest, the interest in clean water and healthy water. I hope it doesn’t come down to that.”