A band of environmental groups filed suit yesterday to try to force U.S. EPA to update and tighten rules on disposing of waste from oil and gas production.
The rules are decades old, the groups note, and they say EPA has missed numerous deadlines for reviewing the handling of drilling waste.
"It's outrageous that the rules haven't been updated since 1981," said Amy Mall of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
An EPA spokeswoman said the agency would not comment on litigation. Industry groups noted that the groups filing the suit have called for banning "fracking." They said existing federal regulations are sufficient.
But the groups said waste from drilling is sometimes spread on roads to melt snow, and that from the federal government's perspective, oil field waste can be handled in the same manner as household trash.
The suit comes as the oil and gas industry reels from a prolonged price slump, following several years of surging activity. Environmental groups have complained for years that the drilling industry enjoys too many exemptions from federal environmental laws and called for a range of tighter restrictions. But some environmentalists are seeking to move past better regulation to ending fossil fuel production, saying it should be kept "in the ground."
The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., by NRDC, the Environmental Integrity Project, 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. The groups had formally warned in August that they would file suit if EPA did not move to update rules on drilling waste (EnergyWire, Aug. 27, 2015).
The green groups are seeking a court-ordered deadline for EPA to update oil field waste rules under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, or RCRA.
EPA in 1988 affirmed an exemption for drillers from RCRA's hazardous waste rules but recommended tailoring rules specifically for oil and gas waste.
The environmental groups say EPA has never followed up on that proposal and has left the industry underregulated, even as waste has increased along with production. The suit said the agency is required to review solid waste rules and state guidelines every three years and revise whenever necessary.
Drilling waste, which can include produced water, fracking fluid and drilling cuttings, 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.
The suit says the most recent changes were provisions for additional public participation added in 1981.
States can enact their own rules. But the environmental groups say that leaves a patchwork of regulation where some people get protected better than others, depending on where they live.
In a conference call yesterday, representatives of the groups noted a similar effort by environmental groups in 2012 that resulted in a court-ordered deadline for the agency to update coal ash disposal. That was preceded by a massive coal ash spill in Tennessee.
"EPA is capable of doing that," said Adam Kron, the Environmental Integrity Project attorney who filed the suit. "It's done this before, and it can do it again."
Oil and gas wells bring up water along with the product that is toxic, is far saltier than seawater and sometimes has small amounts of radiation. While some of the water is treated and reused, billions of gallons are injected underground each year in disposal wells. In some places, the salty water is spread on roads. Spreading it on fields is called "landfarming."
Getting rid of waste is a key, and sometimes contentious, process for oil and gas companies.
While state and federal officials regulate the wells to prevent groundwater contamination, the wells have been linked in recent years to a startling rise in earthquakes, particularly in Oklahoma and southern Kansas. There were more than 900 earthquakes last year of magnitude 3 or greater, and disposal has also been linked to quakes in Arkansas, Colorado, Ohio, Texas and West Virginia.
But oil and gas regulators in Oklahoma and Kansas last year started restricting disposal in earthquake-prone areas, drawing some praise yesterday from environmental groups.
"It's starting to have some effects," Kron said.
On the other hand, they criticized regulators in Texas, which has had far fewer quakes, for not moving against wells.
Drill cuttings from the wellbore can be buried on-site in some states, and are also sometimes sent to landfills. The environmental groups say the cuttings sometimes contain radiation, which municipal landfills are often not equipped to handle.
No companies or industry groups are named in the lawsuit. But they could get the opportunity to intervene at some point in the case if they request it.
A spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, the industry's largest trade group, said the group would not comment on pending litigation. Energy in Depth (EID), a public relations campaign of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, highlighted that many of the plaintiff groups have supported bans or moratoriums on "fracking" or drilling.
Steve Everley of EID noted that disposal wells are generally regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act. He accused the groups of bringing suit under RCRA to open up a new avenue of litigation for attacking oil and gas companies. He called the suit a "fallacious stunt."