Update on Injection of Drilling Waste in North Carolina

On Thursday, the Senate Commerce Committee approved a new version of Senate Bill 76 (the Domestic Energy Jobs Act) after adopting several amendments.  One amendment  somewhat narrowed  language in Section 4 of the bill that would for the first time allow underground disposal of waste in North Carolina.  The official amendment text is not yet  on the General Assembly website, but as it was read in committee  the amendment would allow  injection of  hydraulic fracturing fluid “and water produced from subsurface extraction” of natural gas resources.   The new phrase refers to water  that flows back out of the well after fracturing and continues to be produced (in smaller amounts) as long as the well  produces gas. It is a mixture of hydraulic fracturing fluid and groundwater; the quality of the water depends on the makeup of the fracturing fluid and groundwater conditions.

Underground  disposal of  flowback water from a natural gas well requires a federal Underground Injection Control (UIC)  permit under the Safe Drinking Water Act.  (Injection of  fluid to fracture an oil or gas well is exempt from UIC permitting.)  Like many other states,  North Carolina has  received a delegation of authority  from EPA to issue injection well  permits.  Under N.C. G.S. 87-88(j), injection must be approved by the state’s Environmental Management Commission (EMC), which also has the authority to  adopt rules for well construction and injection.   Since state law   prohibits underground injection of  waste, the EMC has not adopted  standards for waste disposal wells.

To  keep  the delegated injection well permitting program,  North Carolina will have to assure EPA  that the change in state law will not allow contamination of underground drinking water supplies.  States that  permit  injection of flowback water from oil and gas operations (or other types of waste)  usually adopt some version of the  federal rule language  that prohibits injection into an underground source of drinking water if  it  could cause a violation of  federal drinking water standards or  health  problems. Those states  also  adopt specific rules on  location, construction and use of waste injection wells to make sure the general standard can be met.  For one example, see the  Texas rules for underground injection of water from drilling operations.

Questions that arose in committee discussion (with my additional comment in italics below):

Does the law require the water from a drilling operation to be reinjected on the same site?  Response  in committee – No.

     SmithEnvironment: Water from a drilling operation would not be injected into  an area that could produce gas; injection wells either go into an area off-site that doesn’t have a gas resource or  in some cases an old gas well that is no longer producing will  be converted to a disposal well.

Would the language allow injection of water from drilling operations in other states?  Response in committee — That is not the intent, but the language may need to be clarified.

Can the Mining and Energy Commission adopt rules on injection of water from drilling operations? Response in committee — Yes,  the Mining and Energy Commission has the authority to adopt rules.

     SmithEnvironment:   Under the state’s federally delegated injection well permitting program, the Environmental Management Commission  adopts rules for injection wells and also has permitting responsibility.  That hasn’t changed. The 2012 hydraulic fracturing legislation  gave the Mining and Energy Commission authority to regulate  production wells, but not waste disposal wells (which were still prohibited).