Drilling extracts more than just oil and gas from the ground — millions of gallons of salty water also sputter to the surface. Where developers dispose of this water has been a matter of debate in Wyoming for years.
Controversy mounted again this month when conservation groups submitted a letter to a Wyoming regulatory agency demanding public officials investigate the water discharged at an oil and natural gas site for possible contaminants that may harm surrounding livestock and wildlife.
The Wyoming Outdoor Council and Powder River Basin Resource Council alleged Aethon Energy Operating LLC was likely violating the Clean Water Act as well as the Wyoming Environmental Quality Act. Sanctioning another permit would only aggravate the problem posed to surrounding bodies of water, the letter said. The company is asking permission to discharge more salty water as part of its plan to expand the Moneta Divide oil and natural gas field. The groups called on the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality to consider the consequences of the proposed Moneta Divide Oil and Gas Development Project.
The letter from conservation groups comes on the heels of a public comment period, which attracted nearly 500 opinions on the proposed permit to discharge additional water. The public comment period closed last month.
Aethon Energy hopes to eventually expand its operations in Natrona and Fremont counties by 4,250 wells. Additional activity on the over 300,000-acre area would discharge approximately 1 million gallons of salty water into the nearby Alkali and Badwater creeks every day — roughly equivalent to the amount of water in two Olympic sized pools.
The additional drilling approximately 40 miles outside of Riverton could have financial returns for the state to the tune of nearly $200 million in federal royalties, severance taxes and local production taxes annually, according to the Bureau of Land Management. But several Wyoming public officials and citizens wonder at what cost.
“The drilling has completely changed and negatively impacted Alkali Creek and Badwater creeks,” said Jill Morrison, executive director of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a landowners group. “Local people have told us that above these discharges there is aquatic life, but below these discharges nothing is living.”
Aethon Energy currently has 800 wells at the site, but hopes for more output at the facility. The corresponding permit request would allow the company to increase water discharged from drilling.
For its part, Aethon Energy told the Star-Tribune last week it upholds all regulations when drilling for natural gas. The proposed development would also include a water treatment and disposal facility.
“Aethon Energy operates in compliance with the existing (Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality) permit at Moneta Divide, and complies with all State and Federal laws and regulations,” a spokeswoman said in a statement.
But out of the hundreds of public comments submitted to Wyoming officials, an overwhelming number of participants expressed concern over Aethon Energy’s permit request.
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“The department is very concerned about fish and aquatic macroinvertebrate exposure of produced water at Badwater Creek and Badwater Bay,” the Wyoming Game and Fish Department said in a statement during the public comment period. “If not properly diluted, the produced water may cause short-term mortality to aquatic organisms and long-term exposure may have negative effects on growth and reproduction.”
As a result, the agency recommended a “comprehensive monitoring plan” to better understand how the discharged water could affect the surrounding environment before any permit is given a green light.
Eight fishery businesses submitted comment, expressing alarm over the proposed permit. Additional discharged water could accelerate degradation of the fishing industry in Wind and Bighorn rivers, the groups said. These rivers connect to the Boysen Reservoir, where Aethon’s discharged water would likely flow into, if the permit advances.
“The Reservoir cannot handle additional produced water or pollutants without severely harming the fishery, as well as the businesses that depend on a thriving fishery,” the group of outdoor fishing experts commented.
The Environmental Protection Agency also released a draft review of the project in June, outlining seven faults in the company’s proposal — from “factual errors” to concerns over whether “discharges of drilling fluids, acids, stimulation waters” would be properly handled under the established permit.
According to the company, chloride and TDS in the briny water would be kept at or below 419 milligrams per liter and 6400 milligrams per liter, respectively.
But more analysis is required to see if the heightened levels comply with federal standards, the EPA contended in its first analysis. The agency asked the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality to share any proposed permit before issuing approval to ensure it satisfies federal requirements.
Oil and gas companies have long been embattled in permitting wars with regulators and the public due to disagreements over discharged water. The Moneta Divide project stretches back to 2012 when it was initially proposed by Encana Oil and Gas and Burlington Resources.