The U.S. Coast Guard’s withdrawal of a proposed policy covering the movement of shale gas extraction wastewater (SGEWW) via barge could have a chilling effect on the potential market.
While barge companies are still technically allowed to move the waste from oil and gas fracking operations, Coast Guard authority must be received on a case-by-case basis, which could lead to higher costs for chemical analysis and handling.
The proposed policy drew more than 70,000 responses, with only a few dozen supporting movement by barge. The proposal was for a new standardized process and specified conditions under which a barge owner could request and be granted a certificate of inspection endorsement or letter allowing the barge to transport SGEWW in bulk.
The policy withdrawal notice in the Federal Register noted that “barge owners may continue to request case-by-case approval to transport SGEWW under current regulations by providing recent detailed chemical composition, environmental analyses, and other information for each individual tank barge load,” J.G. Lantz, director of commercial regulations and standards for the Coast Guard, wrote in the notice.
The Coast Guard noted that hydraulic fracking, commonly used to enhance production from oil and gas fields in the northern Appalachian Mountains, produces large amounts of SGEWW, some of which may contain hazardous materials including radioactive isotopes.
The waste liquids come from natural-gas production techniques in which drillers pump millions of gallons of water laced with a proprietary mixture of sand and chemicals into the gas well. The fracking liquid, which is 99 percent water, contains various chemicals to inhibit bacteria buildup, prevent pipe corrosion and maintain desired viscosity, among other things. The liquid may contain low-level radioactive materials, salts and heavy metals from underground. Liquids also rise to the surface during normal gas production.
Specialty companies recycle the waste liquid, removing chemicals and returning it to the well site for reuse, or sequester the waste in designated wells. During the shale gas boom, these companies wanted to use barge transportation to economically handle the large volumes of wastewater pouring from the petroleum production fields.
With the withdrawal of the policy proposal, transport of SGEWW by vessel will continue to fall under the Coast Guard’s existing regulations for bulk liquid hazardous material, which requires case-by-case permission.
To date, no barge operator has applied for approval to move the wastewater, according to Jennifer Carpenter, executive vice president and chief operating officer for the American Waterways Operators.
The Coast Guard cited the lack of significant interest from the industry as one of the reasons it withdrew the proposed policy.
“There is at least (a) potential pathway for a company who wants to move it, but we do think there are quite a few hurdles that need to be overcome,” Carpenter said.
One hurdle is a presidential administration hostile to fracking operations, according to Carpenter.
But there is legitimate concern of the potential for radioactive materials at a level that could trigger requirements for environmental impact management under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), Carpenter said.
“The Coast Guard will want to see the chemical analysis that shows what’s actually in the cargo so they can figure out whether a full NEPA analysis is required,” Carpenter said.