WASHINGTON Dec 17 (Reuters) - The U.S. Coast Guard hopes to complete a policy in the next few weeks that would allow drillers to ship wastewater from shale gas production by barge over the nation's inland waterways, a government official said on Monday.
Bulk shipments by barge of wastewater produced from the controversial drilling practice known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, are not currently permitted, said Pat Keffler, the lead chemical engineer at the Coast Guard's hazardous materials division.
"Industry is looking to at least open this as an option for shipment," Keffler said.
PublicSource, a non-profit news group, first reported on Sunday that the Coast Guard was considering allowing fracking wastewater to be moved by barge.
Advances in fracking, which involves injecting a cocktail of water, sand and chemicals underground to extract fuel, have unlocked the nation's massive shale gas reserves.
The growth in shale gas development has led to questions of how to best to manage the wastewater produced through the process.
Drillers can recycle wastewater for reuse, dispose of it at treatment plants or at underground injection sites in states including Ohio, or store the wastewater in open air pits.
Currently, much of this wastewater is transported by trucks, which is expensive. The cost factor led to inquiries from industry about barge transport about a year ago, PublicSource reported.
Keffler said no final decisions had been made on the policy, but that the agency was leaning toward authorizing barge shipments that meet certain criteria. He said the agency hopes to set out the policy in the next few weeks.
"It wouldn't be a trip-by-trip requirement, it would just be that you've got a barge or barge fleet that is approved to carry that cargo," Keffler said.
The rapid expansion of shale gas drilling has raised concerns from environmentalists about possible harmful impacts from various aspects of the fracking, including the disposal of wastewater.
Some environmental groups have argued that allowing wastewater to be moved by barge could threaten the safety of waterways and drinking water, but industry groups have argued transport is safer by barge than by truck, PublicSource reported.
Environmentalists have pressed for more transparency regarding the chemicals used in fracking to aid in regulation and public awareness. While companies have begun to disclose more about the chemicals they use under state laws and voluntary industry efforts, some details have been withheld as trade secrets.