A report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the EPA is not adequately regulating the oil and gas industry’s use of disposal wells, where companies inject billions of gallons a day of briny, chemical-laden fluid produced during drilling operations.
The EPA has put in place a number of safeguards that include construction requirements to prevent water contamination from these wells.
“However, the safeguards do not address emerging underground injection risks, such as seismic activity and overly high pressure in geologic formations leading to surface outbreaks of fluids,” the GAO said in its report.
Injection wells have emerged as the most likely culprits in some of the adverse environmental impacts attributed to hydraulic fracturing, and in particular are thought to be the primary cause of increasing amounts of man-made seismic events in states like Oklahoma and Ohio.
The GAO faulted EPA on two main areas of injection-well oversight. For one, the agency “does not consistently conduct annual on-site state programme evaluations as directed in guidance”.
EPA claims it does not have the resources to conduct such evaluations, but GAO pointed out the the agency “has not… evaluated its guidance, which dates from the 1980s, to determine which activities are essential for effective oversight”.
“Without such an evaluation, EPA does not know what oversight activities are most effective or necessary.”
EPA has also not rolled certain state requirements into federal regulations and, as a result, “may not be able to enforce all state programme requirements”.
“Without incorporating these requirements and changes into federal regulations, EPA cannot enforce them if a state does not take action or requests EPA’s assistance to take action,” the GAO said.
The GAO also said the “large amount of data” that EPA has collected on injection wells “are not reliable to report at a national level”.
The EPA says its safeguards are protective, and GAO conceded that they have “result(ed) in few known incidents of contamination”.
However, the office recommends that, among other things, EPA “review emerging risks” to existing safeguards “and ensure that it can effectively oversee and efficiently enforce” regulation programmes.
The EPA said it is currently reviewing the report.
In its response to the draft report, EPA said it “agreed with GAO’s analysis that EPA maintain enforcement authority of state program requirements, but disagreed with GAO’s recommendation to conduct a rulemaking to achieve this”.
EPA called the recommendation “impractical”.