U.S. EPA will consider revising standards for oil and gas waste for the first time in decades, thanks to a legal settlement with environmentalists.
The agreement, reached just before Christmas and finalized in a consent decree last week, requires the agency to review guidelines under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and determine whether they should be revised to include waste from the oil and gas industry.
Environmentalists have been pushing for updated regulations for years, urging EPA to lift drillers’ longtime exemption from RCRA’s hazardous waste rules. They say closer scrutiny is especially important as oil and gas development and associated waste have increased in recent years.
Drilling waste, including produced water and fracking fluid, is typically injected into disposal wells or stored in wastewater pits or tanks. New RCRA requirements would set safety standards for management and disposal of the material.
"This consent decree is a step in the right direction toward fulfilling EPA’s duty to the public," Environmental Integrity Project attorney Adam Kron said in a statement. "EPA has known since 1988 that its rules for oil and gas wastes aren’t up to par, and the fracking boom has made them even more outdated. Our communities deserve the best possible protections for their health and the environment."
In 1988, EPA affirmed the longtime exemption for oil and gas waste but recommended tailoring solid waste requirements for the industry. Environmentalists say the agency has shirked its duty to review solid waste rules and state guidelines every three years and revise when necessary.
The Environmental Integrity Project was one of several groups that filed a lawsuit against EPA over the exemption earlier this year. The Natural Resources Defense Council; Earthworks; the Responsible Drilling Alliance; the San Juan Citizens Alliance; the West Virginia Surface Owners’ Rights Organization; and the Center for Health, Environment and Justice were also part of the suit.
Under the consent decree, which is binding on EPA regardless of administration, the agency will have until March 2019 to determine whether a revision is necessary. If it decides to move forward with an update for oil and gas waste, it must do so by July 2021.
"We are pleased that the Court approved the parties’ agreement," NRDC senior policy analyst Amy Mall said in a statement. "EPA is long overdue to take a closer look at the unique risks posed by oil and gas waste. We will hold the incoming administration accountable for heeding this call, and we will continue to fight to ensure communities get the protection they need from this toxic mess."
If the agency updates the regulations for oil and gas, much of the work will fall to state officials. States typically take the lead on implementing RCRA requirements and would have to update their oversight plans to cover oil and gas.
Industry groups have expressed frustration at the consent decree. The Independent Petroleum Association of America, which sought to intervene in the lawsuit, said states are already effectively regulating oil and gas waste and accused the environmentalists of simply trying to hamper development.
"These wastes — as EPA has concluded in the past — are effectively regulated by state agencies," Executive Vice President Lee Fuller said in a statement. "We are reviewing the consent decree and will work with the EPA and state regulators to produce an outcome that prevents the unnecessary burden of additional federal regulations and prevents opportunities for future environmental litigation by Keep It in the Ground activists."