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Congressional Testimony, 2006

Statement of Robert M. Hirsch, Associate Director for Water
U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Department of the Interior

Before the Subcommitte on Water and Power House Committee on Resources on H.R. 51110, "More Water and More Energy Act of 2006"

September 26, 2006

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee, I am Dr. Robert M. Hirsch, Associate Director for Water for the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). I thank you for the opportunity to provide the views of the Department of the Interior on H.R. 5110, the "More Water and More Energy Act of 2006."

The Department agrees that the goals of the bill are commendable and the needs that could be addressed are real. Water is the lifeblood of the American West and the foundation of its economy, yet it is also the scarcest resource in some of the fastest growing areas of the country. Seeking to remove the obstacles to putting produced waters to beneficial use is important to our Nation’s energy and water future. The USGS and Bureau of Reclamation have sufficient authority to carry out the provisions of the bill. However, we have some concerns with this bill with regard to funding and the Administration’s priorities.

H.R. 5110 directs the Secretary of the Interior, acting through the Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) and the Director of the USGS, to conduct a study to identify the technical, economic, environmental, legal, and other obstacles to increasing the extent to which produced water can be used for irrigation and other purposes; and the legislative, administrative, and other actions that could reduce or eliminate such obstacles. It further calls for up to three demonstration projects. The role identified for the Department in this bill is consistent with BOR’s role in providing engineering solutions to important water problems of the arid western states and with USGS's role in conducting the applied earth science to address questions regarding natural resources, their utilization, and the environmental impacts associated with their use.

Background

Development of energy resources, such as oil, natural gas, and coalbed methane, produces water, sometimes in volumes that are difficult and costly to manage. Often the produced water is of such poor quality that subsurface disposal is an essential cost of production. Streams and aquifers can be contaminated by improper handling of produced water or the failure of disposal systems. The major concerns over produced water are potential impacts on soils, water, and the biota that depend on the soil and water. Where produced water quality is unsuitable for irrigation, industrial or domestic uses, it can be disposed of by deep well injection, evaporation, or after appropriate treatment, percolation or discharge into surface water drainages.

Prior to environmental regulations in the 1970s, produced waters, which are often highly saline (3,000 to more than 350,000 mg/L total dissolved solids) and may contain toxic metals, organic and inorganic components, and naturally occurring radioactive materials, were commonly discharged into streams, creeks, and unlined evaporation ponds, causing salt crusts and surface- and ground-water contamination. These past practices and current accidental releases of produced water are national issues that concern managers of Native American, Federal, and State lands, as well as oil and gas producers, mineral rights and lease owners, State and Federal regulators, and land owners. A growing concern is the potential use of land for farming, housing, or other uses where produced water from oil and gas production has left a legacy of undesirable environmental effects. Even produced waters of low salinity can lead to problems because application of such waters to the land for irrigation or ground water recharge can result in rapid leaching of the naturally occurring salts present in the soil and the unsaturated zone, leading to potential contamination of aquifers and streams.

The USGS has an 80-year history of conducting scientific studies to evaluate and describe the long-term and short-term effects of the disposal of produced water on soils, ground water, streams, and ecosystems. The USGS has also conducted numerous studies to describe the effects of produced-water salts on water and biota, techniques for detecting these effects, and techniques for remediation of soils and ground water.

In 2002, the USGS released a national produced-water geochemistry database that describes the water quality of waters produced from conventional oil and gas fields. This database is an invaluable tool for coalbed methane development companies; land managers; Federal, State, and local water-quality officials; and the public. The information facilitates evaluation of issues pertaining to energy resource development and environmental quality, such as the need for anti-scaling additives, the design of water handling and treatment systems, and disposal and beneficial use options.

The USGS is studying the impacts on water quality and the landscape caused by produced waters associated with coalbed methane production in the Powder River Basin of Wyoming. This research is being conducted as part of the DOI Landscapes Initiative in collaboration with the Department of Energy, Bureau of Land Management, and others. One component of that project is an examination of hydrology and geochemistry in the vicinity of a produced-water infiltration pond. Early findings are that slightly to moderately saline water infiltrating from the pond dissolved significant quantities of salts present in the soil and unsaturated zone, resulting in a significant increase in total dissolved solids. Preliminary findings were dramatic enough to cause a State regulatory agency to order that disposal of produced water at the infiltration pond be stopped and the site be reclaimed.

The USGS, in cooperation with the Osage Nation, Department of Energy, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is investigating the effects of hydrocarbons and produced water (brines) on soil and ground and surface water at two sites adjacent to Skiatook Lake in the southeastern part of the Osage Reservation in northeastern Oklahoma. Results from this investigation will provide information needed by environmental officials, land managers, petroleum companies, and land owners to assess human and ecosystem impacts and to develop risk-based corrective actions to clean up contamination from produced water from oil and gas wells that are no longer active.

The Bureau of Reclamation has the technological capabilities that could support the water purification processes used to convert produced waters to qualities that support beneficial uses. Reclamation has extensive expertise and capabilities in water purification technologies, especially as applied to desalination. Reclamation has extensive expertise and capabilities in water storage and delivery infrastructure planning and design. Reclamation works with the states, BLM, EPA and others in managing produced waters so that the quality of Western water supplies are not degraded by impaired produced waters.

Pilot and demonstration projects like those described in this bill could help provide proof of concept from treatment to beneficial use in key basins where opportunities may exist for converting produced waters to beneficial uses. However, the feasibility and potential value of any demonstration project should be evaluated as a first step. Any such demonstration projects should be well coordinated at the federal, state, and local levels. Other federal agencies with whom Reclamation and USGS would coordinate such demonstration projects include BLM, EPA, and DOE's National Energy Technology Lab (NETL).

Conclusion

In conclusion, the Department concurs with the goals of the bill to identify impediments to the beneficial use of produced waters. Understanding the opportunities and overcoming the challenges involved in converting produced waters to beneficial uses will help irrigators, farmers, energy producers and State and Federal agency efforts to increase the development of western energy sources while protecting the quality of our streams and aquifers. Accomplishment of the study as proposed in Section 3 of H.R. 5110 is subject to the availability of funds within the Administration's priorities. Such a study would focus on existing and potential new technologies for treating produced waters to make them suitable for beneficial uses and would also focus on existing and potential new hydrologic and geochemical models needed to predict the impacts of various management strategies on streams, aquifers, soils and biota. Improved technology and collaboration, as proposed in this bill, are among the four key tools proposed as part of Water 2025, an initiative of the Department to meet the water-supply challenges of the future. However, funding for the activities in H.R. 5110 would remain subject to the limited available resources within the Administration's priorities.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for the opportunity to present this testimony. I will be pleased to answer questions you and other Members of the Subcommittee may have.

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