In the Eagle Ford Shale, as well as in other new oil and gas producing areas across the United States, drilling rigs, such as the one seen in the photo below, produce drill bit cuttings and drilling fluid waste material that must be disposed of by some means. One method of disposing of drilling mud and other oilfield waste from Eagle Ford Shale wells is a method called land farming or “landfarming.” This process uses bio-remediation, which includes allowing naturally occurring and introduced microbes, (bacteria,) water, temperature and sunlight to break down oilfield waste material. A “landfarm facility” means a facility or part of a facility at which solid wastes are treated and disposed by incorporation of the materials into the existing soils. These facilities are normally temporary in nature and the land is usually removed from agricultural use for a period of time as prescribed by agencies such as the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates land farming in Texas. Below is a photo of a drilling rig in the Eagle Ford shale discharging rock cuttings into a temporary holding pond. This pit appears to be unlined and the drilling mud water – based.
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The process of land farming of oil and gas drilling waste materials is controversial, yet it is highly profitable for disposal companies and landowners who sign leases with them. Landowners who sign leases with a landfarming company, or company that specializes in disposing of Eagle Ford Shale oilfield waste, may receive over a thousand dollars per acre. There have been concerns about groundwater contamination from landfarming operations in Texas, such as the proposed Texas Energy Services landfarm near San Ygnacio in Zapata county. Residents there recently met at the Martinez Civic Center to voice their concerns and opinions about the proposed oilfield waste disposal facility near their community. One thing that concerns some neighboring landowners is whether a landfarm site will be regularly monitored for the presence of unauthorized chemicals and runoff. Also, if the site is deemed at some point in the future to be contaminated with toxic waste, will this cause a reduction in neighboring property values? Regardless of these very valid concerns, landfarming has a history of success in treating oilfield hydrocarbon waste material, such as drill bit cuttings and waste drilling mud. Among the concerns listed by landowners regarding Eagle Ford Shale land farming operations are the following:
- Will the landfarming operation be used to simply dilute contaminants? If the contaminant cannot be broken down by biodegradation, land farming should not be used.
- Dust control is an important consideration during the soil tilling process. How much dust will be created by an oilfield waste landfarming facility?
- The conditions that affect the breakdown of oilfield waste in land farming operations, such as rainfall and temperature, are largely unpredictable. Could this mean that a landfarm may still contain waste material after several years, if for example there is a drought?
- Many oilfield waste products including drill bit cuttings contain some volatile organic compounds such as diesel and other hydrocarbons that may transfer to the atmosphere before they can be degraded. Will the proposed landfarm facility generate noxious odors?
- Does Statewide Rule 8. have too many loopholes? For example, must adjacent property owners be notified if it is considered “a small operation.” Furthermore, if the operator divides a large landfarm up into small plats can the operation then be conducted using only “minor permits,” which require less oversight?
On the surface, (no pun intended,) landfarming is an effective process that will continue to be used by the oil and gas industry in Texas to dispose of oilfield waste material such as drilling mud. Proper, scheduled testing of these facilities should be made a priority by Texas regulatory agencies to help allay the fears of residents and property owners living near new Eagle Ford Shale landfarms.