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Commission Spares Aquifer in Setback for Oil and Gas Project

State regulators voted against allowing the injection of oil and gas wastewater into the Madison Aquifer, a future source of drinking water. (Matthew Bowden/Wikimedia Commons)
State regulators voted against allowing the injection of oil and gas wastewater into the Madison Aquifer, a future source of drinking water. (Matthew Bowden/Wikimedia Commons)
February 11, 2016

CHEYENNE, Wy. - The Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to deny Aethon Energy's request for an exemption allowing them to dispose millions of barrels of oil and gas wastewater into a portion of the Madison Aquifer. The aquifer underlies Montana, Nebraska, North and South Dakota, Wyoming and parts of Canada.

Amber Wilson, environmental quality advocate with the Wyoming Outdoor Council, welcomed the decision and says future requests deserve careful review.

"But they are really risky." she says. "You're injecting contaminants down into the ground – and as black and white as some people tend to make underground sound, it's not very black and white. And so, you want to be really careful about where you inject those things."

The commission's geologists opposed injections at a hearing last November, citing evidence that Madison could be a future source of drinking water.

The decision is seen as a setback for the Moneta Divide Project in Fremont and Natrona counties. Aethon has a state-of-the-art water treatment facility, but the company says that option is too expensive in the current economic environment.

The move reverses a decision three years ago to allow the project, when commissioners voted against the advice of the commission's geologists. Tom Drean and Mark Doelger voted against the injections because the operator admitted the contamination would spread beyond the exempted area.

Wilson says in the long term, it makes sense to protect clean, drinkable water.

"Science points pretty strongly to the fact Wyoming, and the West in general, is facing a drier future," says Wilson. "And writing off any potential source of groundwater sounds like a pretty big mistake."

If approved by the Bureau of Land Management, the Moneta Divide Project would clear the way for more than 4,000 oil and gas wells in central Wyoming. The agency expects to release its draft environmental impact statement later this year.

Eric Galatas, Public News Service - WY