GAO Urges Review of Risks From Disposing Of Oil, Gas Wastewater Into Injection Wells

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By Pat Ware  

The Environmental Protection Agency should review emerging risks related to the disposal in underground injection wells of wastewater from oil and gas activities, according to a reportreleased July 28 by the Government Accountability Office.

Overall, safeguards in place at the wells—known as class II wells—are effective in preventing contamination of underground water sources and very little has occurred, EPA and state officials told the GAO.

Current safeguards require well operators, among other things, to meet technical standards for constructing, operating, testing and monitoring injection wells, said the report, “Drinking Water: EPA Program to Protect Underground Sources from Injection of Fluids Associated with Oil and Gas Production Needs Improvement.”

However, such safeguards don't address emerging underground risks, such as seismic activity and overly high pressure in geologic formations that could lead to surface outbreaks of fluids, the report said.

The EPA classifies underground injection wells into six categories, depending on the type of waste injected. Class II wells are those involving enhanced oil and gas recovery. Over 2 billion gallons of brine and other fluids are injected daily into more than 172,000 class II wells to produce oil and gas and dispose of fluids used in production, the GAO said.

Potential Danger to Drinking Water

Most of the fluids injected into class II wells are saltwater, which may contain pollutants such as chlorides, hydrocarbons and naturally occurring radioactive materials, the report said. Some additives used in fracturing fluids, such as diesel fuel, are toxic to human health and the environment.

Because the fluids are injected into porous rock formations, such as sandstone—typically below aquifers used to supply drinking water—there are concerns with contamination, it said.

The GAO audit was requested by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

In general, the EPA agreed with the report's findings, conclusions and recommendations, along with its characterization of the resource challenges facing states and EPA-managed programs, GAO said. The EPA agreed with three of the four recommendations made by report.

Identification of New Risks

As new risks associated with hydraulic fracturing arise, such as overpressurization of geologic formations and potential contamination of underground sources of drinking water by diesel fuels, the EPA should task the Underground Injection Control Technical Working Group with reviewing these risks and related safeguards, the GAO said. The agency must identify emerging risks and provide state and EPA-managed class II programs with the information they need to address these risks, it said.

The EPA agreed to implement this recommendation.

The GAO also recommended that the EPA evaluate and revise as necessary UIC program guidance to identify activities needed to effectively oversee programs.

In comments submitted before the release of the GAO report, the EPA said it will begin an internal dialogue among UIC program managers at the June 2014 National Managers Meeting. The agency said it will continue this process over the next year and document the results and any recommendations by July 2015.

In addition, the EPA said it will develop an advisory document that supplements its 1993 guidance on effective oversight by July 2016 if warranted.

Oversight, Enforcement

In another recommendation, the GAO suggested that the EPA conduct a rulemaking to incorporate state program requirements into federal regulations.

The EPA did not agree to this recommendation, saying such a rulemaking would be impractical and ineffective. Instead, the EPA said it is was conducting an ongoing process of individual rulemakings to approve and codify state programs.

The GAO said it believes its recommendation is still necessary because the state-by-state approach would take much longer than a single rulemaking, would face greater challenges and leave the EPA without enforcement authority.

In the same recommendation, the GAO said the EPA should evaluate and consider alternative processes to efficiently incorporate future changes to state program requirements into a rulemaking.

EPA did not agree to this recommendation either, saying there are strong policy and programmatic requirements to maintain the codification process. GAO, however, said it continues to believe that the agency should explore other methods for ensuring the enforceability of state UIC regulations that don't rely on the rulemaking process.

Nationwide Reporting Goals

In a final recommendation, the GAO said the EPA should take action to support nationwide reporting goals until the national UIC database is complete.

Specifically, the EPA should develop and implement and protocol for states and regions to ensure that “7520” data are complete and comparable for national reporting purposes. The agency collects data on class II programs on reporting forms known as 7520 forms. The EPA also should develop a method to use the 7520 database to report UIC data until the national database is fully populated with state data.

The EPA agreed with the recommendation.

Zachary Cikanek, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, told Bloomberg BNA July 28 the organization is in the process of reviewing the GAO report and has no comments yet.

Katie Brown, a consultant with Energy in Depth, a program of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, told Bloomberg BNA July 30, “The GAO report clearly states that the programs they evaluated have effective safeguards to protect water and that very few problems have been reported.”

“While anti-fracking activists are working overtime to suggest otherwise, this report simply does not validate their claims. It is yet another study finding that wastewater disposal is highly regulated and safe,” she said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Pat Ware in Washington at pware@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at lpearl@bna.com

The GAO report on the EPA's role in the class II underground injection control program is available at is available at http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/664499.pdf.