Still Wasting Away

The U.S. produces the most oil and gas waste

While portions of our society begin the transition away from fossil fuels, the United States is still on track to unleash 60 percent of all new oil and gas production globally between now and 2030 – four times more than any other country.  Being the world leader in oil and gas production also means the U.S. leads in the production of oil and gas waste, which contains carcinogens, heavy metals, secret fracking chemicals, radioactive materials, and other toxics.

Even if new expansion stopped tomorrow, today’s oil and gas wells will continue to produce massive amounts of waste long after the drilling has stopped. Oil and gas waste has and continues to poison the environment and impact public health in ways that can be prevented. This report shows how oil and gas waste is being mismanaged and what must be changed to curb further damage.

Oil & gas waste oversight isn’t improving

In 2015, Earthworks published Wasting Away: Four states’ failure to manage oil and gas waste in the Marcellus and Utica Shale after many high-profile events drew public attention to the limitations and risks of disposal methods. In this latest report, Still Wasting Away, we’ve taken another look and found that regulations have barely improved or have even worsened in some states since 2015. In addition, other developments have emerged:

Still Wasting Away

Download PDF
Download PDF

A legal loophole makes oil & gas waste…”safe”?

Despite the fact that oil and gas wastes can qualify as “hazardous” by national standards, oil and gas production companies are still exempt from federal hazardous waste law under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) via an enormous loophole created by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1988. This loophole results in the absence of “cradle to grave” tracking of waste from well site to final disposal, a lack of comprehensive analysis of wastes to determine how hazardous they actually are, the improper disposal of waste at municipal landfills and wastewater treatment plants rather than at specialized facilities, the “beneficial use” of oil and gas waste without proper testing for such purposes as road-spreading or construction materials, and the injection of wastewater in Class II disposal wells rather than the more stringently constructed and regulated Class I wells designed for hazardous materials.

EPA leaves states in charge

Consequently, most oil and gas waste management is largely subject to state discretion. Just this year (April 2019), the EPA opted out of improving state waste regulations for the industry under RCRA Subtitle D, stating that the states were doing a fine job of managing oil and gas waste. This report, and others, reveal that EPA and state governments are leaving communities at increased risk for exposure to toxic and carcinogenic oil and gas waste.

What we don’t know can hurt us

The absence of a uniform federal standard for tracking oil and gas waste means it is still impossible to know how much of it is being produced nationally or where it’s all going.

However, what we do know is cause enough for major concern. Research shows that health problems, illness and disease increase for those who live in close proximity to oil and gas facilities. But while we are particularly concerned for the growing number of people living near the expanding array of operations where waste is produced, stored, transported and disposed, we are also troubled about new pathways of exposure to greater portions of the public due to the

  1. Availability of commercial products created from oil and gas waste and
  2. Spreading of oil and gas wastewater for de-icing and dust suppression on highways and roads across the country.

Nine states

Still Wasting Away expands our original research in the Marcellus and Utica region of the northeastern U.S. to include a total of nine oil and gas producing states:

  • California,
  • Colorado,
  • New Mexico,
  • New York,
  • North Dakota,
  • Ohio,
  • Pennsylvania,
  • Texas, and
  • West Virginia.

Waste moves across the borders of these and other states in a complex and uneven web of waste management that begs for consistent federal standards. An in-depth report will be published for each one of these nine states in the coming months.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state governments are leaving communities at increased risk for exposure to toxic and carcinogenic oil and gas waste.

Recommendations

Because the RCRA loophole remains, so do our policy recommendations from 2015, with some additions. While these recommendations apply to federal policy, the absence of regulatory action at the national level means individual states can protect the residents within their own borders by implementing most of the following policies at the state level:

  • Reverse the federal exemption for oil and gas waste in the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and apply hazardous waste policies to oil and gas wastes that qualify, scientifically, as hazardous.
  • Require comprehensive, consistent testing of all oil and gas wastes before they leave the well site.
  • Test and handle radioactive oil and gas wastes according to more stringent guidelines.
  • Implement “cradle-to-grave” waste tracking and reporting systems that are comprehensive, consistent, binding, verifiable, and transparent.
  • Require treatment and disposal of wastes at specialized facilities designed and equipped to remove all chemicals, radioactive elements, total dissolved solids, metals, and other contaminants.
  • Adopt policies for the frequent monitoring of groundwater, surface waters, sediment, soil, leachate, and effluent from and near waste treatment and disposal facilities.
  • Prohibit open-air reserve pits, centralized impoundments, and waste burial or land-spreading.
  • Prohibit the “beneficial use” of oil and gas wastes, including, but not limited to, the road-spreading of wastewater and creation of new construction or pavement materials from these wastes.
  • Strengthen standards for current and future underground injection control well facilities that accept oil and gas wastes, including but not limited to comprehensive chemical testing.
  • Apply a “zero discharge” requirement on all oil and gas wastewater from any oil and gas or waste treatment facility.