With oil growing more scarce each year, energy companies have been turning to alternative fuel sources, including shale and coalbed methane gas.
Like other energy sources, the problem facing the natural gas and oil industry is how to regulate the environmental impact that drilling causes.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recently announced a timeline for developing environmental standards that would help regulate the wastewater produced from natural gas extraction. Currently, no such set of standards are in place. The EPA will be accepting input from the energy industry and public health organizations, as well as other stakeholders.
While previously not economical, recently developed technologies have turned shale and coalbed gas drilling into a more lucrative business venture, resulting in an increase in drilling activities. The Obama administration has further encouraged drilling in the hopes of weaning Americans off of foreign oil while simultaneously creating a new source of employment.
Main environmental concerns over natural gas extraction are centered on wastewater discharges through the process of hydraulic fracking. Chemically-treated water is used in the gas well to help release the gas and pump it up to the surface. While the gas is then sent to a compressor for processing, the water used during extraction is often left in the ground, where it can contaminate freshwater aquifers. In other instances, this "produced water" is either released into streams, used in irrigation systems, or placed in evaporation ponds.
The produced water used in natural gas extraction contains dissolved compounds such as sodium bicarbonate and chloride, resulting in a higher level of salinity. In Australia, evaporation ponds have sometimes failed to properly reincorporate the water, leaving behind poor soil quality and subsequent lack of vegetative growth because of the sudden abundance of sodium.
Scientists are still debating the impact of natural gas wastewater however. Earlier this year, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology released a study that showed lower levels of pollution when coupled with proper disposal techniques. Gas wells that resulted in groundwater contamination were not employing higher wastewater processing standards. The study showed that a detrimental environmental impact can be minimized with proper regulation such as those standards proposed by the EPA.