EXPLAINER: The U.S. Coast Guard’s Recent Action on Fracking Wastewater-by-Barge

resized hydraulic fracking

The U.S. Coast Guard formally withdrew yesterday its proposed policy regarding moving in bulk fracking wastewater by barge. It isn’t replacing it with any other policy or rule and intends to consider individual requests to conduct these types of activities.

But let’s back up:

All of this really stems from a process known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” a process used to extract gas or oil from hard-to-reach rock formations.

During that process, large amounts of fluids that include water, sand and chemical additives are pumped into the rock formations at high pressures. Much of that fluid later comes back to the surface as “produced water” or fracking wastewater that may include metals and other naturally occurring materials.

That produced water from natural gas drilling operations is what is being discussed by the Coast Guard.  Right now, if that fluid is moved, it’s moved via rail or truck. However, when one company in 2011 expressed interest in moving large amounts of it by barge from northern Appalachia to Ohio, Texas and Louisiana, the Coast Guard believed there could be more interest and decided to propose a policy.

That policy, which it proposed in October 2013, was aimed at addressing a number of concerns, including that certain wastewater from that region may be radioactive. More than 70,000 comments were submitted on the proposal.

The public expressed concern about this policy’s lack of consideration of environmental implications—such as implications to drinking water—and worker safety. Industry said the broad definition of fracking wastewater included in the policy and shipment chemical testing were problematic.

So what’s happening now?

The Coast Guard withdrew its policy, in part because of a lack of industry-expressed interest in this type of transport. The agency said it’ll consider industry requests on a case-by-case basis. No new policy is being proposed.

Here’s what you should watch for:

There’s potential for litigation from environmentalists over this move by the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard will continue to assess this issue, including the adequacy of existing regulations. Many people will be watching how the Coast Guard moves to evaluate the risk of this wastewater for barge transport, the results of which could bleed into other debates related to the risks of fracking wastewater.