By Commissioner Wayne Christian
As Texas’ official representative to the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC), I passed a resolution in May 2018 asking the federal government to identify regulations that should be delegated to the states. In response, I received the suggestion that Texas should request delegation of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) program for oil and gas wastewater from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It quickly became apparent that the best way to obtain this delegation would be to pursue it through the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), rather than through my agency, the Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC).
Instead of playing protectionism over the duties delegated to our agency, my fellow commissioners and I put Texas first and supported legislation at the Legislature that would enable TCEQ to request this authority after our agencies finalized a MOU.
There are many political issues facing the oil and gas industry, but perhaps the most significant technical issue is the dilemma on what to do with oil and gas wastewater. Although the Texas oil and gas industry does not use high volumes of water as compared to other key industries on a statewide basis, it is important to further increase our efforts to use water in a sustainable manner.
With the upcoming change in the White House, many had lost faith that Texas would be able to obtain the NPDES delegation before inauguration. Fortunately, last Friday, the EPA approved Texas’ request to administer this critical program.
Although the EPA doesn’t currently allow the discharge of treated produced water into the Waters of the United States, such as rivers and lakes, it is my hope that this change is a big first step towards a future where our state has the legal authority to permit alternatives to the underground injection of wastewater. Creating a regulatory framework that incentivizes the reuse and reintroduction of produced water cleaned to the health and safety standards of the Clean Water Act should be prioritized.
It is important for the public to know that just because Texas has this authority doesn’t mean energy producers will be able to just discharge produced water however they see fit. Permittees will have to apply for a permit with the TCEQ and will be subject to very specific requirements and monitoring, using the same standards that EPA uses today.
Texas has a great track record with protecting the drinking water Texans rely on. Shortly after I joined the agency, the Railroad Commission conducted an exhaustive review of nearly 63,000 injection-well applications since 1982. The findings of the review confirmed permitted injection wells are not polluting sources of underground drinking water or potential sources of underground drinking water. The study was commended by the EPA.
This latest delegation from the federal government allows state regulators to do what they do best, continue to protect their constituents while ensuring innovation is not stifled by unnecessary bureaucratic red tape.
If we allow municipalities to clean and reuse sewage water, it only makes sense to explore using properly treated water from the oil patch to water cotton in West Texas and potentially even broader uses down the road. As treatment costs decrease and freshwater prices continue to increase, Texas will be thankful it has the flexibility afforded to it by this delegation of authority from the federal government.