Skip to main content

Fossil fuels not only drive the climate crisis, but also threaten our water

Greenhouse gases are not the only byproduct of oil and gas production that affects public health and the environment. A Clean Water Action report offers an in-depth look at produced water, the wastewater from oil and gas production activities—from fracking to enhanced recovery and more—that contains dangerous contaminants including salts, benzene, metals, and radioactive materials. As climate change impacts the quality and quantity of water supplies, the oil and gas industry is advocating to weaken the regulation of produced water discharges, and there are already multiple ways in which implementation of the Clean Water Act is leaving water resources unprotected.

Clean Water Act regulations for produced water

The goal of the Clean Water Act is to restore and  maintain the integrity of America's waters. One way it does this is through the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), a program that requires a permit for industrial pollution discharges. In order to discharge wastewater to Waters of the United States (surface bodies of water like rivers, streams, wetlands and lakes), the discharger has to apply for a permit and meet effluent guidelines, standards for the greatest reduction of pollutants in discharges based on available water treatment technologies that are considered economically achievable for the industry. 

When we learned that the oil and gas industry was lobbying to reduce the limits on discharge of produced water, we looked into how the Clean Water Act regulates this practice.  We found some problems. Read the report here.

Three ways in which implementation of the Clean Water Act puts our water at risk

Current regulations do not adequately protect water resources. This puts the quality and availability of water at risk as we face water shortages due to climate change. There are three main ways current regulations leave water sources vulnerable to pollution from oil and gas wastewater.

We don’t have a complete picture of what is in produced water

There are significant data and knowledge gaps about the chemicals present in produced water as a result of inadequate reporting requirements, lack of analytical methods, and industry trade secret claims. This means that we do not know enough about the chemicals that are discharged and how they affect human health and ecosystems.

Exceptions to discharge prohibitions allow for risky practices.

The CWA generally prohibits discharges of oil and gas wastewater to surface water like rivers and lakes, but there are a number of exceptions. Wastewater can be discharged in arid areas of the U.S. west of the 98th meridian (this crosses the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas) where wastewater is used to water livestock, irrigate crops or propagate wildlife, despite lack of evidence that these practices are safe. Discharges from wells that produce less than 10 barrels of crude oil per day, named stripper wells, and facilities that produce coalbed methane, a type of gas extracted from coal beds, are also exempt from this prohibition. Additionally, produced water treated at industrial treatment plants or centralized waste treatment facilities (CWTs) can be discharged across the U.S., despite EPA findings that call into question the availability of analytic methods to detect pollution in these discharges. Finally, wastewater produced from oil and gas extraction from conventional sources can be treated at municipal treatment plants that may not be equipped to effectively treat produced water, despite prohibiting unconventional wastewater, which has the same chemical characteristics. All these exceptions are problematic and pose threats to human health and the environment.

Transparency and oversight vary across states.

States can obtain authorization from EPA to issue and administer NPDES permits that regulate produced water discharges, but variability in how states set water quality standards and make permits available to the public raise serious questions about the effectiveness of these programs. Due to this variability in transparency and permit availability, it is more difficult to obtain information about discharges in some states, making it harder for residents of certain states to advocate for clean water. Water quality standards and oversight can also vary according to factors like resources allocated to state agencies, putting residents of some states at risk.

What EPA should be doing

Protecting our water is and will be a critical issue as more water resources are impacted by the changing climate. We recommend that the Environmental Protection Agency and states:

  1. Improve understanding about chemical characteristics of produced water, by requiring more chemical disclosure by oil and companies and by addressing gaps in the science.

  2. Revise and improve effluent guidelines for oil and gas extraction, by closing the loopholes that allow for polluting discharges. 

  3. Improve state permitting oversight and transparency to make permits easier to find and understand. 

Read the full report here.

Review the appendix here.

Download and share our fact sheet here.

Related Priorities