EPA Aims At Water Resources, Could Hit Oil & Gas

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Newly minted EPA chief and former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler left many heads a-scratching earlier this week, when he told a CBS interviewer that his agency would focus on water issues instead of, well, saving the whole planet. However, there may be a method to the madness.

Not to oversimplify things — but we will, anyways — during the CBS This Morning interview Wheeler mentioned two EPA water resource action areas that could bump up the cost of oil and gas.

Perhaps the focus on water issues would provide coal with a little more wiggle room to survive in a world awash in oil, gas, and renewables. That makes sense in terms of President* Trump’s interest in propping up the coal industry. It’s also consistent with Wheeler’s former occupation as a lobbyist for the coal industry, so there’s that.

The Water Pollution Problem: What About The Litter?

According to a review of the Wheeler interview by AP, the EPA chief focused attention on the problem of litter in water.

That’s a problematic take for the oil and gas industry, which is faced with two emerging counter-trends.

ExxonMobil and other major players in the global oil and gas industry have been pivoting toward plastics and petrochemicals as a hedge against declining use of oil and gas for in the heat, power, and transportation sectors.

Meanwhile, the ocean plastic crisis is motivating food and beverage retailers, leading brands, and manufacturers to cut down on plastics and petrochemicals in their supply chains.

Sports arenas and entertainment venues are also beginning to jump into the anti-plastic movement.

That doesn’t particularly effect coal stakeholders but it has to be a little concerning for the oil and gas industry.

What’s All This About Waste Water Treatment?

The other area Wheeler mentioned, according to AP, is wastewater treatment and recycling for oil and gas operations.

That opens up a whole new can of worms for oil and gas stakeholders.

The problem goes back to the Cheney-Bush administration, which created a loophole in federal water safety regulations.

Among other things, the loophole enables oil and gas drillers to keep their fracking formulas under wraps. That makes it virtually impossible to track and identify potential sources of pollution in nearby water resources.

During the Obama administration, EPA struggled to close the loophole and pretty much failed, with the rare exception proving the rule.

It’s difficult to see how EPA plans on expanding its wastewater and recycling efforts without forcing drillers disclose their fracking ingredients.

That could mean a world of hurt for oil and gas drillers who are already under fire for a plethora of local environmental impacts including air quality and noise issues as well as unsustainable water use.

EPA & Water For All

It’s unclear from the AP report if Wheeler will prompt EPA to take similar action on coal mines. Maybe, maybe not.

Okay, so probably not.

Anyways, a followup article by CBS News emphasized that Wheeler would like to use EPA’s loan and grant programs as a model for improving safe water access globally.

However, those programs pretty much throw the cost onto taxpayers for infrastructure improvements, rather than directly impacting costs for the polluters.

For the record, Wheeler was likely referring to the Clean Water State Revolving Fund. It combines state and federal funds for projects in these areas:

  • construct municipal wastewater facilities
  • control nonpoint sources of pollution
  • build decentralized wastewater treatment systems
  • create green infrastructure projects
  • protect estuaries
  • fund other water quality projects

Anyways, having a coal lobbyist in the driver’s seat is quite a switcheroo for the Trump* administration.

Those of you who keep score at home may recall that the President’s first Secretary of State was longtime Exxonmobil CEO Rex Tillerson, who shepherded his company to the height of the oil and gas fracking boom in the US — at the expense of coal, of course.

On the other hand, if Wheeler wants to throw the coal industry a bone at the expense of oil and gas, it’s probably too little, too late.

The funny thing is that AP and CBS News focused on different parts of the interview in their follow-up reports. If you saw the whole interview or read the transcript, drop us a note in the comment thread and let us know what you think.

Follow me on Twitter.

*Developing story.

Photo (cropped): Ocean plastic by Kevin Krejci, flickr (creative commons license).

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3140 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey