Environmental groups threaten lawsuit over drilling wastewater rules

WASHINGTON — Environmental groups on Wednesday announced plans to take the Obama administration to court with the goal of compelling tough new government standards for disposing waste from oil and gas wells.

The move — formalized with a notice of intent to sue the Environmental Protection Agency — is the latest bid by conservationists to prod greater scrutiny of oil and gas drilling and the industry’s handling of millions of gallons of water and other waste that can spring from individual wells.

Under existing federal law, the Environmental Protection Agency is obligated to review and possibly revise regulations governing the handling of oil and gas waste every three years. But the agency’s last review was 27 years ago.

And though the EPA decided then that it may need to better tailor its waste regulations for the oil and gas industry, it has not touched the issue since — even as domestic drilling has surged, said the organizations, including the Environmental Integrity Project and Natural Resources Defense Council.

“The federal rules governing this waste are basically the same rules as what apply to your household garbage,” said Matthew McFeeley, an attorney with the NRDC. “These weak federal rules do not require the companies to handle or dispose of this waste as toxic or to manage it in a way that prevents it from putting public health and the environment at risk.”

A multi-year study by the Environmental Protection Agency concluded in June that there is no evidence the hydraulic fracturing process now widely used to stimulate U.S. oil and gas wells into production has caused “widespread, systemic” damage to drinking water. But the agency warned that there are challenges tied to hydraulic fracturing’s immense water needs and the disposal of fluids that flow out of oil and gas wells.

Read more: EPA study finds no evidence of widespread impacts

Hydraulic fracturing involves pumping millions of gallons of water along with sand and some chemicals underground to open the pores of dense rock formations and unlock the oil and gas trapped inside. Some of that fracturing fluid can surge back to the surface along with water from the formation itself. Over time, the initial surge of returning fracturing fluid declines and water that was already underground can flow alongside oil and gas from the reservoir itself.

Naturally occurring radium, bromide and other toxins can flow along with the fluids.

Oil and gas companies have turned to a variety of techniques for disposing drill cuttings, fracturing sands and wastewater. Wastewater is typically injected it into deep storage wells, temporarily stored in pits on site or recycled.

But underground injection is drawing new scrutiny because of its possible link to earthquakes. And the EPA already has moved to foreclose one wastewater disposal option used previously in Pennsylvania: trucking the waste to municipal treatment facilities.

Read more: EPA to block drillers from sending wastewater to municipal treatment plants

Adam Kron, an attorney with the Environmental Integrity Project, said the EPA should set tougher requirements for underground injection wells, bar companies from spraying wastewater onto roads or fields and require special liners for landfills and ponds that accept drilling waste.

Absent specialized federal rules for oil and gas waste disposal, companies must abide by varying state-based regulations.

And, with narrowing disposal options, the oil industry is pursuing drilling and fracturing techniques that produce less liquid waste — including so called “dry fracs” that rely on liquefied petroleum gas gel instead of water.

“States have taken the lead on regulating oil and natural gas production and . . . will continue to do so,” said Lee Fuller, executive vice president for the Independent Petroleum Association of America. “There is no sense in wasting resources and American tax dollars to compel the EPA to revisit this resolved issue.”

Environmental groups “have routinely pursued every pathway they can to suppress the development of American oil and natural gas,” Fuller said. “They have repeatedly filed petitions and released specious reports to rationalize their actions.”

The latest “intent to sue” notification gives the EPA 60 days to review and revise its oil and gas waste disposal regulations.

It follows separate action in 2011, when the Natural Resources Defense Council filed a petition with the EPA asking for a rule update.