The U.S. EPA team looking into man-made earthquakes linked to drilling activities sent a final report to headquarters in Washington, D.C., several months ago. But the report still has not been officially released.
The version sent to Washington in January changes the wording for how to deal with problem wells when earthquakes persist. The phrase "do not operate," used in a prior draft, was replaced with "conditions not conducive to injection" (EnergyWire, July 22, 2013).
And the report did not recommend that all disposal wells be tested for seismic dangers. Because of that, one member of the working group that drafted the report voted against it.
"The authors and I are not comfortable in having the work product recommend seismic monitoring for every Class IID well across the country, as there are just too many variables that exist," wrote the chairman of the group, Kurt Hildebrandt, with EPA's Underground Injection Control (UIC) program in EPA Kansas City-based Region 7.
The version sent to Washington -- deemed "final" in a transmittal memo -- was included in a response to a Freedom of Information Act request by Inside EPA in March.
The workgroup effort began quietly in June 2011. At the time, EPA officials said "the UIC program can and should implement requirements to protect against significant seismic events."
But agency leaders have also stressed that group was not seeking to make new policies or regulations. Instead, it was to develop recommendations for state officials for dealing with injection wells linked to earthquakes. The study was to have been completed by December 2011 but wasn't.
Oil and gas regulation can be a touchy subject at EPA. The agency has been under intense criticism from the oil and gas industry and congressional Republicans as it weighs its role in the nation's shale boom.
Environmentalists have criticized the agency for pulling back from three major water contamination cases in Pennsylvania, Texas and Wyoming. Some groups are wary of President Obama's "all of the above" energy strategy, which includes domestic oil and gas production.
Scientists have known for decades that underground injection of fluid can lubricate faults and unleash earthquakes. Some seismologists now think the boom in shale drilling in the United States -- and the wastewater it produces -- might be causing a sharp increase in the number of earthquakes in the middle of the country.
Researchers have linked such deep injection wells to earthquakes in Arkansas, Colorado, Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas. More "earth-friendly" procedures, such as geothermal energy production and carbon sequestration, can also set the earth rumbling.
Oil and gas production is regulated almost entirely by states. But a federal law, the Safe Drinking Water Act, governs underground disposal of drilling wastewater. EPA regulates disposal directly in a few states, such as Pennsylvania, but in most it has handed day-to-day regulation to state agencies.
The Safe Drinking Water Act doesn't make it illegal to cause an earthquake. Instead, EPA seeks to prevent earthquakes because they might harm the underground sources of drinking water the act does protect.
Click here to see the latest version of the report.
Click here to see the memo transmitting the report to Washington.