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).