Flowback Fluid Recycling Regulation in the Barnett and Eagle Ford Shale Plays

This article is part of a series of blog posts evaluating the current status of flowback and produced water recycling regulations in the major shale play states. These waters are generated through the hydraulic fracturing process, and this blog series will discuss the manner in which these waters are disposed.

 Flowback and produced waters from the hydraulic fracturing process may be disposed of in a number of ways. First, they may be injected into permitted disposal wells. Second, they could be delivered to permitted water treatment facilities. Or third, they are recycled. Recycling this flowback fluid that returns to the surface after hydraulic fracturing, as well as the naturally occurring produced water, is especially useful when fresh water is in short supply.

As shale plays located solely within the Texas borders, the Barnett and Eagle Ford shale plays are subject to Texas’ commercial recycling regulations. The Railroad Commission of Texas (“RRC”) regulates wastewater management from oil and gas development and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (“TCEQ”) regulates wastewater treatment facilities. However, the current set of rules do not contemplate the recycling of flowback fluids.

The Wall Street Journal recently pointed out that recycling the water used in hydraulic fracturing operations could be a billion dollar market due to the way it will cut costs for energy companies. State regulators are also taking note of the beneficial environmental impacts and developing rules to encourage flowback fluid and produced water recycling.

In February, 2012 the RRC distributed a draft of proposed amendments to its commercial recycling rules. It also solicited informal comments and held a workshop for interested parties in order to get feedback on the proposed changes. The RRC then used the feedback to release the proposed rules on September 28, 2012. The comment period ended on October 29, 2012.

The main impetus behind the rules was the increasing number of permit applications for facilities that did not fall into either type of commercial recycling facility (mobile facilities and stationary facilities) under the existing rules. Thus, the RRC proposes a third category, for semi-mobile commercial recycling facilities. The new rules, as a result, make it much easier to conduct on-lease, non-commercial recycling of produced water and/or hydraulic fracturing flowback fluid. They also include requirements for off-lease or centralized non-commercial produced and flowback fluid recycling.

Under the new rules, non-commercial on-lease produced water and/or hydraulic fracturing flowback fluid recycling could be conducted without a permit if the fluids are either:
  1. recycled for use as hydraulic fracturing fluid or other oilfield fluid to be used in the wellbore of an oil, gas, geothermal, or service well; or 
  2. treated to national drinking water standards under the Safe Drinking Water Act and used in any way other than as a discharge to surface water or in the irrigation of edible crops.  

The proposed rules also establish standards for the construction and operation of recycling pits holding produced water and/or flowback fluid. The rules specify particular siting, lining, and capacity requirements for such impoundments. Upon adoption, commercial recycling activities associated with hydraulic fracturing could be more easily conducted.

This article was prepared by Heather M. Corken (hcorken@fulbright.com or 713 651 8386) and Kristen Hulbert (khulbert@fulbright.com or 713 651 5303) from Fulbright's Environmental Law Practice Group.