New study reveals gaps in the methods used to assess chemicals in oilfield wastewater

By Cloelle Danforth

A new study led by researchers with Colorado School of Mines exposes limitations with the current methods used to detect chemicals in oilfield wastewater and offers solutions to help regulators make better decisions for managing this waste stream.

Oilfield wastewater is extremely salty and can contain multiple combinations of many potentially harmful chemicals (approximately 1600 on a national basis). However, most standard or approved analytical methods available to regulators were designed to work with fresh water. Because oil and gas wastewater is so salty—sometimes 10 times saltier than seawater or more—chemists often have to dilute wastewater samples to manage the high salt content.

This means they may also be diluting chemicals of concern to concentrations too low to detect, even though they may be present at risky levels. For example, benzene is a chemical associated with petroleum hydrocarbons and a known carcinogen. It also has a drinking water standard of 5 parts per billion – that’s 5 cents in 10 million dollars. It really doesn’t take much dilution of a sample to lose that level of precision.

More concerning is that more than 75% of the chemicals associated with unconventional oil and gas production don’t have standard analytical methods. So, not only are the available analytical tools frequently inappropriate for saltwater samples, there are no tests at all for most of the chemicals that could be there.

Why it matters

In the United States oil and gas production generates nearly 900 billion gallons of wastewater per year. That’s the same amount as 30% of the water that went over the Hoover Dam last year.

Aerial view of wastewater pit at a drilling site

Historically, most of this wastewater has been pumped into underground wells for permanent disposal. But concerns about this practice leading to earthquakes, coupled with heightened demands for water and a desire to cut costs, has companies looking at new ways to manage this massive waste stream, from crop irrigation to discharge into surface waters.

(Learn more: Scientists Question Risks of Using Oilfield Wastewater on Crops)

Before this wastewater is reused in ways that could affect our water or food supplies, the right tools are needed to identify, measure, and treat the chemicals it may contain. This is a basic requirement for making sound decisions about protecting our health and our environment.

Advancing science to improve policy

Before new technologies and analytical methods developed in research laboratories are standardized and used in a regulatory context, they must undergo a rigorous and time-consuming validation process to assure they are robust, accurate, and precise.

Getting the job done right requires having the right tools. For this review, researchers combed through scores of research methods, evaluated which techniques are appropriate for oil and gas wastewater, discussed challenges associated with current methods, and offer potential solutions for detecting chemicals. In other words, the study offers us a starting point for making better decisions about cleaning or reusing wastewater.

Today, there’s a lot that isn’t – and can’t – be known about what’s in this wastewater, and, as a result, it’s nearly impossible to conclude that it won’t threaten human health and our environment if it is released into our ecosytem.

Fortunately, this review represents an important step toward identifying potential approaches to understanding the chemistry of this complex waste, and could lead to better treatment and disposal practices that will ultimately help keep our soil and water clean.

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The HSUS goes to federal court on behalf of Yellowstone’s grizzly bears

Grizzlies are more valuable alive than dead. They are responsible for bringing in tens of millions of dollars into local economies in and around the Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. Photo by Ray Rafiti

Sixty days ago, The HSUS told Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke that we’d see him in court if his agency did not reconsider a wrong-headed decision to strip federal protections from grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. We made good on that promise today. Joined by our affiliate The Fund for Animals, The HSUS filed . . . 

The post The HSUS goes to federal court on behalf of Yellowstone’s grizzly bears appeared first on A Humane Nation.

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New utility settlement will unlock millions in clean energy funding for Ohio

By Dick Munson

Enhancing EV infrastructure is one of the many ways AEP’s new settlement advances clean energy.

AEP, one of Ohio’s largest utilities, just reached an exciting new milestone that takes the state further down the path to a clean energy economy.

The utility has reached a settlement that will unlock millions in funding, lower pollution, avoid unnecessary electricity bill increases, and provide customers with more clean energy options.

New benefits

In AEP’s recent electric security plan case (a process that sets generation rates charged to customers) through 2024, the utility, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), the Ohio Environmental Council (OEC), and others have reached a settlement that includes the following:

  • Less pollution through more renewables: AEP will build or enter into a power purchase agreement for 900 MW of low-carbon solar and wind projects – enough to power almost 2,000 homes for a year. These new projects will allow the state to rely less on polluting coal.
  • No unnecessary fixed cost increases: The fixed monthly charge for residential customers will remain at $5.00/month, rather than a whopping $18.40/month that AEP sought. Higher fixed rates mean customers typically pay more regardless of how much they cut their energy use, effectively discouraging them from investing in energy-saving resources like efficiency and residential solar.
  • Strengthening grid reliability and resiliency: AEP will spend $10.5 million for one or more microgrid projects, localized power grids that have the ability to disconnect from the main, centralized grid.
  • Enhancing electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure: AEP will spend $10.5 million for an EV charging station rebate program.
  • Opening the door to future clean energy investments: AEP will implement a more streamlined way to recover costs from projects related to PowerForward, the state’s grid modernization effort, and the Smart City program, which involves $60 million in grants to the City of Columbus for smart transportation systems. This new cost recovery mechanism will lower AEP’s risk for investing in smart grid measures.

These ambitious developments will significantly enhance and diversify Ohio’s clean energy economy.


New utility settlement will unlock millions in clean energy funding for Ohio
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A history of bailouts

Last year, AEP and FirstEnergy, another utility giant in Ohio, sought enormous bailouts for their unprofitable, old coal and nuclear plants. After the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) blocked these pleas, each utility was forced back to the drawing board – and each came back with a very different approach.

While FirstEnergy continued its crusade for customer-funded bailouts, AEP began to re-think its strategy and reached a settlement with the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio (PUCO) for its customer rates through May of 2018. Although the settlement had some promising clean energy components like increased renewable energy, it was still an unnecessary handout.

Specifically, the deal would have forced Ohioans to pay for AEP’s share of two uneconomic coal plants, which are part of the Ohio Valley Electric Corporation (OVEC). These are two old coal plants in Ohio and Indiana, built in the 1950s to supply electricity for a uranium enrichment plant that has since closed. EDF, among others, did not agree to the settlement.

Groups are contesting that deal, and specifically the OVEC bailout piece, at the Ohio Supreme Court, arguing that the provision is unfair because AEP has already been compensated for its share of the OVEC plants (through “transition charges” that AEP recovered during the 10 years following deregulation). The outcome is expected within the next year.

Under the new rate case settlement, AEP will continue to get money for its share of the uneconomic OVEC power plants through 2024. If the Ohio Supreme Court rejects the OVEC bailout, the decision will render the related portion of the new settlement moot and various parties will get back together to determine the path forward. EDF and the OEC would not be at the table because we opposed the original OVEC coal bailout, and we do not support the extension in the new settlement.

Regardless of the impending court decision, AEP’s new settlement exemplifies how utilities can and should include clean energy provisions when setting their overall electricity prices for customers. As the U.S. continues its transition to a cleaner, smarter energy system, more utilities should take this approach.

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Californians benefit from continuous pollution monitoring at oil and gas sites

By Tim O’Connor

Sophia Brewer, Oil and Gas Intern, contributed to this article.

Since the 1892 discovery of oil in California, the oil and gas industry has been a major economic engine and energy supplier for the state. Although this oil and gas production may be broken down into dollars and barrels, it doesn’t tell the story of the potential impact of drilling activity on the lives of the people in Los Angeles and the Central Valley who live right next to these operations.

While some production sites may be meeting stringent operational and environmental standards, others may not –there simply isn’t data to discern which is which – and that is where monitoring comes in.

Opportunity

The world is experiencing the largest technology and innovation boom in history. Computers, space-age science, the internet, and cloud-based information platforms are making the collection and analysis of data easier than ever before. There’s no reason the gathering and evaluating of pollution data should be any different.

Oil and gas companies like StatOilShellPG&E, and SoCalGas; academic institutions like Stanford and Colorado State University; government agencies like NASA and South Coast AQMD; and several tech companies like Picarro, Quanta 3 SensitUnited Electric ControlsEntanglement Technologies and many more; have demonstrated that it’s now possible to install precise continuous monitors at or around oil and gas facilities to capture real-time data on air pollution at all hours of the day. In some cases, such as natural gas storage sites, monitoring systems are being tested and installed right now under new regulatory requirements. In other cases, companies and communities are installing continuous monitors to provide valuable information about on-site operations issues or to inform neighbors of potential health risks.

A major series of studies is also underway by the state of California, stemming in part from requirements of AB 1496 to evaluate potential methane “hot-spots” in the state and observations of a 2016 Air Resources Board study that demonstrated that nearly half of the leaks at California oil and gas sites have detectable levels of cancer-causing compounds. From these efforts, it is clear that more pollution monitoring is needed to protect the public.

Pollution monitoring has economic, environmental and public health value

Perhaps the clearest example of the value of continuous monitoring can be seen at the Aliso Canyon gas storage field – operated by the SoCalGas Company. Stemming from a well blowout in October 2015, the event cost SoCalGas and its insurance providers over $832 million as of June 30, 2017, with additional costs expected well into the future. Pollution monitors may not prevent massive leaks, but they may act as an early warning system that alert facility operators to the presence of smaller leaks before they grow into bigger problems.

Continuous monitors can also act to empower the public and quell concerns over uncontrolled and unknown emissions. As a result of the Aliso Canyon incident for example, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) required the installation of continuous monitors at all natural gas storage sites in California. With these types of facilities holding vast amounts of natural gas mixed with crude oil residues and pollutants like benzene, the new CARB rule is a testament to the commercial availability of continuous monitors and the value these monitors provide to regulators and the public.

To find another example of the value continuous monitors can deliver, one must look no further than to the 1.3 million Californians who live within a half mile of the 93,000 active oil and gas facilities in the state. And since recent studies suggest a possible correlation between living in close proximity to oil and gas production sites and respiratory complications such as onset asthma and cancer, the public depends on strong regulations, transparent information, and equitable enforcement to minimize the risk of pollution from these sites at all hours of the day.

Well site near a residential neighborhood in Southern California

Continuous monitoring in California can reduce unequal community burdens

In California, nearly 69% of residents living near oil and gas sites are people of color – meaning emissions disproportionately burden these communities. Government agencies and oil and gas operators may not intend for these disparate impacts, but they are none-the-less part of the landscape and local residents often have neither the time, energy, and/or money to stand up to fix these inequalities.

Continuous monitoring for air pollution will foster better transparency between corporations, the government, residents, and customers. Through this improved transparency and resources to evaluate data, in particular in areas where people live and work immediately adjacent to oil and gas sites, monitoring can and will encourage the highest levels of corporate responsibility, more precise and informed engagement by neighbors, and higher levels of effectiveness in government oversite efforts. By investing in low-cost, high precision continuous monitors, oil and gas companies will reduce pollution in the neighborhoods where they are needed most.

Looking forward

While many have a vision of a fossil fuel free world, elimination of oil production isn’t likely to happen any time soon. What is on the horizon though, is technology and data analytics that can better document pollution from the industry and help aim toward consistent environmental responsibility. As a matter of capturing the low hanging fruit, at minimum, high producing sites located next to homes and businesses in disadvantaged communities (like many in the Los Angeles Basin) seem to be a perfect fit for early roll-out of monitors and data evaluation resources that document and result in reduced pollution.

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