Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico are exploring the idea of allowing oil companies to recycle wastewater and either transfer it to other users or release it into surface water, according to E&E News.
The oil industry generally disposes of wastewater in deep injection wells.
The plan intends to help the oil industry cope with its growing waste disposal problem, but environmentalists warn the oil industry could end up polluting waterways instead.
"We can't bring those discharges back," said Nichole Saunders, a senior attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund's Climate and Energy Program.
Oklahoma could get approval from U.S. EPA to start issuing permits that will allow the oil industry to dispose of oil field waste in waterways within the year, reported E&E News.
Texas and New Mexico enacted laws this spring requiring their environmental agencies to explore the idea, according to E&E News. The regulations on releasing treated wastewater into surface water will likely vary from state to state.
The oil industry in Texas produces 357 billion gal of wastewater a year, while Oklahoma and New Mexico also produce billions of barrels of waste each year.
Experts believe the oil industry is gradually running out of space to dispose of wastewater in the deep aquifers.
Companies could be handling produced water from thousands of sites, according to E&E News. Considering each site may have a different geology, each well could be treated with a different blend of drilling chemicals, ultimately changing the makeup of the wastewater.
"We're talking about a very, very complex waste stream that changes from well to well, region to region, day to day," said Saunders.
The Groundwater Protection Council believes more information is needed before produced water can be released into fresh water.
Though the state is holding a series of meetings on produced water reuse, officials are proceeding with caution nonetheless.
It is not clear what discharge limits would be implemented.