Bill Seeks to Further Regulate Wastewater Wells in Nebraska

At a drilling site in western Nebraska, the short tank on the left holds produced wastewater. Companies frequently dispose of such water by injecting it into old wells. (Photo by Ariana Brocious, NET News)
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March 8, 2016 - 6:45am

A bill introduced into the Nebraska Legislature seeks to add further regulations to the oil and gas industry and the state commission that oversees it. LB1082 is in response to a controversial project in western Nebraska that would allow oil and gas companies to inject wastewater deep underground.

Last year, Colorado-based Terex Energy Corp. applied for a permit to dispose of wastewater in an old oil well in Sioux County, Nebraska. This is common practice in the oil and gas industry. Drilling operations produce a lot of this wastewater and they need some place to put it.

But this well became especially controversial for several reasons:

1. They wanted to inject a LOT of water—10,000 barrels a day.

2. The water would be coming from oil and gas fields in Colorado and Wyoming, not just Nebraska.

3. That water would be brought by up to 80 trucks a day, every day, on rural highways and roads—leading to concerns about damage and safety.

4. This water is typically very salty and can contain chemicals and contaminants from the hydraulic fracturing process—sparking concerns around possible groundwater pollution, particularly in the High Plains Aquifer.

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September 30, 2015

A committee of the Nebraska Legislature is wrestling with who should be responsible for overseeing regulation of the oil industry in this state. It’s a task that has implications for oil, water, and possible earthquakes. And opinions on how it should be done are mixed.

“Lots and lots of people organized out west, lots of people weighed in, lots of good testimony, lots of concerns,” Senator John Stinner of Scottsbluff said. Several constituents contacted him about the proposed well, he said, voicing concerns like, “This wastewater coming from out of state, is that necessary? Should we be doing that? Is it going to affect the quality of water?”

He and other senators asked the state oil and gas commission to pause their review process, but the agency went ahead and approved the application -- for half the original volume of water (5,000 barrels per day). A couple Nebraska landowners filed suit against Terex Energy Corp. and tied the application up in court, where it remains. Stinner said in light of the controversy, senators saw a need to examine state regulations around these wells.

“We suddenly realized this was a bigger issue than just transportation, roads, and monitoring the well,” Stinner said.

Last summer and fall, Stinner and other senators, along with the EPA and representatives from other states, conducted a review of the Nebraska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s regulations and track record. In January, Stinner and four other senators introduced LB1082, intended to “improve the public's access and understanding of the commission's process, and to ensure accountability for the safety of the public and the environment,” according to the bill summary.

LB1082 would require operators to notify local government and natural resources districts when they apply for a commercial wastewater disposal well, and to test the water injected into the wells every year. The bill also gives the state agency more authority to test wells, monitor the transport of wastewater, and hold public hearings and forums.

At a recent hearing, Dana Wreath of Berexco LLC, an oil producer that operates in Nebraska, was one of several industry representatives testifying against the bill.

“I appreciate what’s trying to be done here in 1082, I think there’s a good intent, but we don’t have an out of control injection and production oil and gas operation in this state,” Wreath said. Other industry opponents said Nebraska’s current regulations are sufficient.  

Donna Roller, a landowner from western Nebraska, testified in support of the bill along with several environmental groups including Bold Nebraska and the Sierra Club.

“Why are we doing this and putting our aquifer at risk? While I support these bills it does not go far enough to protect our water,” Roller said.

Nebraska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission Director Bill Sydow testified as neutral, but said the bill and additional regulations are unnecessary and redundant, “I think we have the ability to do almost anything that was 1082 right now.”

LB1082 also changes the intent of the commission—replacing language around promoting oil and gas with promoting public health, safety and the environment. Stinner said that’s largely to reduce the appearance of conflict within the agency’s mission.

Sydow also thinks that’s unnecessary—because he doesn’t read the current legislation that way.

“The individuals in the state who have connected us with promoting the industry, they're wrong,” Sydow said.

Senator Ken Haar from eastern Nebraska introduced a different bill this session to require liability insurance for commercial wastewater wells. While his bill ended up getting dropped from consideration, he’s not surprised that the industry—and the state oil and gas commission—opposed it.

“So often when you try to introduce regulations, people said, ‘we don't need that because we do it anyway.’ We're talking about disposing of this water forever. And so we have to make it as safe as possible. And I think we're not there yet,” Haar said.

Sydow said fears around groundwater contamination are unfounded.

“The idea of some huge massive problem or contamination is never going to happen, especially with a commercial well,” Sydow said, citing Nebraska’s clean track record of oil and gas development.

But John Berge, general manager of the North Platte Natural Resources District, said it’s better to be safe—even if the potential for spills is small.

“Limited potential means something to those of us that are supposed to be regulating the water that we eventually drink or our livestock drink or our crops are watered with, etc., and so we have to think about that,” Berge said.

Allen Heim of Terex Energy Corp., the company behind the wastewater well, said they still might develop the project if they’re successful in court.

“However with the price of oil at today's rates, there's not going to be any exploration up in that area for the foreseeable future. So some things are going to have to change,” Heim said.

That plunge in oil prices during the last year changed the whole game, says Heim. Commercial disposal wells in neighboring states have caught up, “so there's no need to bring water from Wyoming or Colorado. They're able to handle their own needs right now,” Heim said.

So it’s unlikely that any commercial wastewater wells of this size will start operating in Nebraska in the near future. LB1082 is expected to come up for full debate in the Legislature soon.



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