BOISE, Idaho — Idaho wants the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to take over regulating underground injection wells needed by the state’s oil and natural gas industry to economically dispose of wastewater.
The federal agency in a notice Monday said it will take public comments through Jan. 11 on the plan to transfer a portion of the state’s Underground Injection Control program.
The Idaho Department of Water Resources in August requested the change after failed attempts by the state to get approval from the EPA to regulate what are called class II injection wells.
“The lack of class II injection well permits is the single biggest hindrance to developing this industry in Idaho,” said John Foster, spokesman for Texas-based oil company Alta Mesa.
The company in southwestern Idaho has six operating production wells and nine that are capable of producing but are turned off. Foster declined to go into details but said the approval of injection wells would “absolutely” lead to more production.
The company currently trucks wastewater to evaporative ponds south of Boise Airport. Foster said the trucking cost 10 times more than an injection well, and “the most environmentally safe way to dispose of it is to put it right back where we got it.”
Mick Thomas, the state’s Oil and Gas Division administrator at the Idaho Department of Lands, used to work in the same industry in Oklahoma.
Thousands of earthquakes have struck that state in recent years, many linked to the underground injection of wastewater from oil and natural gas production. State regulators have directed several oil and gas producers to close some injection wells and reduce volumes in others.
Thomas said there are significant differences between Idaho and Oklahoma. “I don’t have any reason to be concerned about induced seismicity” in Idaho, he said.
Idaho wells, he said, involve high-porosity sand formations from which oil and gas flow easily. That’s different from the shale formations in Oklahoma that require hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and the introduction of fluids to break open the shale. Access fluids are then sent down injection wells.
Idaho wastewater, Thomas said, was already in the ground and is simply being put back where it came from, resulting in no net increase, unlike the process in Oklahoma.
The Idaho Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is scheduled to meet Dec. 7 at the State Capitol building. The agenda hasn’t been released, but injection wells are expected to be a topic before the five-member commission.
The EPA said it will hold a public meeting on Idaho injection wells if there’s significant interest. “However, if there is not significant interest, EPA anticipates issuing a decision in the upcoming months,” the agency said in an emailed statement to The Associated Press on Tuesday.
Foster said Alta Mesa would like to get a permit for an injection well as soon as possible.
“In recent months, we’ve had a very productive set of conservations with the EPA,” he said.