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Last week the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) released their critique of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) regulation of oil and gas waste injection wells. The GAO found that EPA does not perform sufficient oversight and they inconsistently evaluate how states regulate this activity.

Even when EPA wants to conduct oversight, GAO noted that EPA sometimes couldn’t because they never incorporated many state rules in to their federal regulations.

Passed in 1974, the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) protects underground sources of drinking water (USDW) by, in part, controlling the underground injection of the waste from oil and gas wells. Because of the Halliburton loophole, the SDWA does not regulate fracking (except when drillers use diesel fuel). However, the SDWA does govern the wells used to dispose the wastewater from fracking.


The real problem posed by the proliferation of oil and gas waste disposal wells is the tremendous increase in the number and intensity of earthquakes. That’s right; the geologists call it human-induced seismicity. It used to be that Oklahoma experienced only a handful of major earthquakes every year. Now, on average, they get rocked just about every day.

Who’s in Charge Here?

Enforcement is a key responsibility of all our state and federal agencies. And GAO found EPA doesn’t do nearly enough. Unfortunately, the inability to perform necessary inspections or enforce against violations is nothing new. If EPA simply incorporated Oklahoma’s regulations, EPA could provide more help. Or take the example from Illinois, where the state asked EPA to seek compliance from an operator who failed to conduct mechanical integrity tests and submit annual status reports in violation of Illinois regulations. In what had to be a little embarassing, EPA initially fined the operator only to later discover- nearly a decade later- EPA had never actually bothered to adopt the Illinois rules. So, they had no authority to levy a fine.

So Many Wells, So Little Time

The tremendous boom in shale gas drilling just over the last few years has created increasing demand for new waste disposal wells. The last few years has also created strain on EPA from government shutdowns, sequestration, and Congressional gridlock on staff confirmations. But lack of resources is not the whole picture. EPA has not conducted a review of this regulatory program since the early 1990s, long before fracking became a household word.

Twenty years is more than enough time. The danger of frackquakes is visceral, literally shaking us to the core. And EPA cannot delegate their responsibility to protect our water supply while drillers inject underground over two billion gallons daily. The GAO called it like they see it. EPA needs to step up.