Nebraska regulators OK disposal well for oil-field wastewater that environmental groups oppose

EnergyAssociated Press

State regulators approved a disposal well Wednesday that would allow a Colorado energy company to discard oil and natural gas wastewater underground in northwest Nebraska — a project that's drawn more opposition from landowners and environmental groups than similar past plans.

The Nebraska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission voted 2-0 in favor of the project at a ranch north of Mitchell. The panel's third member, Robert Goodwin of Sidney, recused himself because his law partner represented opponents of the project.

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While Nebraska already has 121 active saltwater disposal wells, this project has drawn objections from environmental groups and nearby landowners who worry that leaks or spills could contaminate the Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies drinking water to about 2 million people in eight states and supports irrigation. The production water is considered waste because of its high salt content and industrial chemicals.

Under the proposal, Colorado-based Terex Energy Corp. would truck in salty groundwater from oil operations in Wyoming, Colorado and, eventually, Nebraska, to an old oil well on the ranch in southern Sioux County. The water would be pumped more than a mile-and-a-half below the aquifer into a geologic formation that the company says would keep the water from escaping.

The project could handle as many as 80 trucks a day, carrying up to 10,000 barrels. Opponents also have argued that nearby roads could deteriorate faster because of heavier traffic.

Commissioners from both Sioux and Scotts Bluff counties took formal stands against the proposal. In a letter to the panel last week, seven state senators urged the commission to delay its decision so they can review Nebraska's safety laws.

One of the signers, Sen. John Stinner of Gering, has proposed an interim study to look at possible new regulations for fracking water disposal.

Terex officials deny that the plan poses any threat to water resources and say that hundreds of similar wells have operated safely in Nebraska for decades. They also say not having the disposal well could hinder future oil exploration in the region.

Bill Sydow, the commission's executive director, said landowners near the site can appeal the decision in district court.

Sydow said the commission oversees similar wells throughout western Nebraska, including 121 active saltwater disposal wells, roughly 400 active injection wells and about 60 injection wells that are inactive. He said one of the inactive wells sits a mile and a half to the northwest of the new proposed site.

Advocacy groups including Bold Nebraska and the Nebraska Sierra Club accused the commission of violating the state's open meeting laws. Their complaints prompted Attorney General Doug Peterson to assign a special prosecutor to investigate whether the commission posted sufficient notice of its plan to meet or illegally restricted public testimony to property owners within a half-mile of the site.

"Regardless of the finding, we will continue to stand with the courageous Nebraskans who are standing up for our life-giving water, our land, our rights and our children's future," said Ken Winston, a policy advocate for the Nebraska Sierra Club.