EARTHQUAKES

EPA keeping seismic report on drilling under wraps

U.S. EPA is keeping secret its study on earthquakes linked to oil and gas drilling.

In a letter this week, the agency refused a request from EnergyWire to release the study under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). It deemed the report "pre-decisional" and cited the law's exemption for "deliberative privilege."

"We are unable to provide you with the draft report which has been determined to be exempt from the mandatory disclosure requirement," wrote James McDonald, assistant regional administrator for management in EPA's Region 6 office in Dallas.

EnergyWire is appealing the denial, in part because the study has already been used for its intended purpose -- guiding state officials on standards for oil and gas wastewater injection wells. Ohio officials cited the study last year when they issued new rules for such injection wells in the wake of an injection-linked series of quakes near Youngstown.

Ohio officials cited the report, formally known as the Underground Injection Control National Technical Workgroup's "Draft Report on Injection Induced Seismicity -- Practical Tools for UIC Regulators," as "in press" (EnergyWire, March 15, 2012).

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Courts have found that "predecisional status is lost if the draft is utilized for policy guidance," according to a Justice Department FOIA update.

The earthquake report originally was expected to be done by the end of 2011, and comments on a draft report were due from other agencies more than a year ago. But there is little indication of change since spring of last year (EnergyWire, March 19).

"The report is still in draft form as of now," an EPA spokeswoman said in March. "There is no specific timetable for release of the final report."

Fracturing shale formations such as those found in Arkansas, Pennsylvania and Ohio requires the use of millions of gallons of water, and it creates millions of gallons of salty wastewater more toxic than what was initially fired down the hole. Drillers must figure out how to dispose of it. Some reuse part of it in the next "frack job," but they often inject it back underground in one of the nation's 40,000 deep injection wells.

The examination of man-made earthquakes, or "induced seismicity," was undertaken by a technical working group of EPA and state officials. The project has been shepherded by the staff of the agency's South Central Region, also called Region 6. Based in Dallas, the region has been caught in some of the fiercest debates about federal vs. state regulation.

EPA officials had told state regulators that they were seeking to develop recommendations for states to consider for "managing or minimizing" earthquakes triggered by deep injection. They also stressed that the work group was not seeking to make new policies or regulations.

The plan was to partner with state regulators and scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey and solicit peer review at the end. The team was also expecting to examine quakes in Arkansas, Texas and West Virginia as "case studies."

The work group's recommendations were expected to include suggestions along the lines of increased monitoring of wells and additional permit conditions. EPA officials had also noted that a "prompt response" to smaller quakes might minimize bigger ones.

Scientists have known for decades that underground injection of fluid can lubricate faults and unleash earthquakes. Temblors in Ohio, Texas, Colorado and Arkansas have raised worries that disposal of waste from the nation's drilling boom has led to earthquakes.

More "earth-friendly" procedures, such as geothermal energy production and carbon sequestration, can also set the earth rumbling.

The Safe Drinking Water Act empowers EPA to regulate underground injection, but injection wells for oil and gas waste do not have to be tested to ensure they won't cause earthquakes.

EPA often hands day-to-day regulation of it to states, which are free to enact stricter laws. Aside from Ohio, most haven't.

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