Barbara Miller | Patriot-News
The Environmental Protection Agency needs to ramp up its review of the effect fluid injection into wells in the oil and gas industry has on underground drinking water sources, says a report issued by the Government Accounting Office.
EPA is not consistently enforcing and overseeing class II wells in two key areas, said GAO.
“First, EPA does not consistently conduct annual on-site state program evaluations as directed in guidance because, according to some EPA officials, the agency does not have the resources to do so,” said GAO.
- Of the 1,865 class II wells in Pennsylvania, only 33 percent, or 330, were inspected in 2012, GAO said.
- Class II wells are used to inject brines and other fluids associated with oil and gas production, and hydrocarbons for storage.
- Nationwide, at least 2 billion gallons of fluids are injected into more than 172,000 wells, said the report.
In fracking, water, chemicals and sand are pumped into the ground to fracture rock and release hydrocarbons.
Travis Windle, spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, said the report shows no allegations of contamination or significant noncompliance violations for the 1,865 Pennsylvania class II wells, and noted that the state has just seven operating oil and gas waste disposal wells.
“Second, to enforce state class II requirements, under current agency regulations, EPA must approve and incorporate state program requirements and any changes to them into federal regulations through a rulemaking. EPA has not incorporated all such requirements and changes into federal regulations and, as a result, may not be able to enforce all state program requirements,” said GAO.
While some EPA officials said this is “burdensome and time-consuming,” EPA has not come up with a more efficient process.
EPA needs to improve data collection on well oversight at a national level, particularly since shale oil and gas production has increased four- and five-fold, respectively, since 2007, said GAO.
With this boom in production, new risks have emerged, including overpressurization of geologic formations and potential contamination of underground drinking water sources, said GAO. Without better nationwide data on these risks, regulators won’t have the information needed to protect drinking water, said the report.
The study looked at three types of class II wells: enhanced recovery wells into which brine, water, steam, carbon dioxide, or other fluids and gases are injected into oil-or gas-bearing formations to increase the recovery of residual oil and gas, which are 80 percent of the class II wells; wells used to dispose of the fluids brought to the surface during fracking; and storage wells for liquid petroleum products.
The report examined two states that rely on EPA for class II enforcement – Pennsylvania and Kentucky – and six states with their own EPA-approved program (California, Colorado, Ohio, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas).
There are 39 states permitted by EPA to review their own class II programs, while EPA regions manage the rest.
Here is what GAO recommends to improve EPA oversight to protect drinking water sources from the underground injection of wastewater from increasing domestic oil and gas production:
- The EPA should improve review of emerging risks and related program safeguards, including overpressurization of formations and information on use of diesel fuels in hydraulic fracturing.
- The EPA should improve data reporting, and checking for consistency and completeness; and should develop a method to compile a database on class II wells that can be used for a national database.
- The EPA should conduct rulemaking to incorporate state program requirements and changes to state requirements, into federal regulations; and evaluate and consider alternative processes to more efficiently incorporate future changes to state program requirements into federal regulations without a rulemaking.
- The EPA should evaluate and revise, as needed, how EPA headquarters and regions oversee the class II programs.
EPA agreed with all but the enforcement recommendation. The GAO believes EPA should take actions to ensure it can enforce state class II regulations.
The Marcellus Shale Coalition said the GAO report confirms a track record of safety in the industry, said spokesman Travis Windle.
“Shale producers in the Commonwealth pioneered large-scale water recycling and reuse technologies, which are now being utilized across the nation. In fact, nearly 90 percent of the water used in Pennsylvania’s shale development is currently being recycled and reused. That said, EPA-permitted UIC wells play an important role in the broader water management process. These highly-regulated, ‘safe’ disposal methods – according to EPA – have not impacted groundwater resources, as this new GAO report confirms,” Windle said.
He noted the GAO report says all of the class II programs have safeguards to prevent contamination of underground water “by ensuring that fluids injected into underground formations do not leak into aquifers that are used, or could be used, for drinking water.”
The report states that while officials have reported “few known instances of contamination from the injection of fluids into class II wells in the last 5 years; however, EPA’s class II program does not require monitoring of groundwater for contamination nor do most of the eight states we reviewed. Moreover, EPA has noted that the absence of known contamination is not necessarily proof that contamination has not occurred.”
Amy Mall, senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, had this to say about the report:
“The federal government’s watchdog is saying what communities across the country have known for years: fracking is putting Americans at risk. From drinking water contamination to man-made earthquakes, the reckless way oil and gas companies deal with their waste is a big problem. Outdated rules and insufficient enforcement are largely to blame. EPA needs to rein in this industry run amok.”
UPDATE: This story was updated with information from Marcellus Shale Coalition and Natural Resources Defense Council.
Read the entire GAO report here: GAO-14-555 Drinking Water and Fracking report
This article was written by Barbara Miller from The Patriot-News and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.