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A new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) confirms what many small-government environmentalists have been saying for years: States are more effective at regulating the disposal of wastewater from hydraulic fracturing operations than is the Environmental Protection Agency.
Hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking,” has led to a surge in oil and natural gas production in the United States. The process uses water, sand, and a few chemical additives to create fissures in oil- and gas-bearing rocks thousands of feet underground, allowing these resources to flow up to the surface.
Each hydraulically fractured well typically requires 2 to 4 million gallons of water, with 15 to 50 percent of this water flowing back to the surface after the process is complete. This water is typically briny, and it contains remnants of the sand and chemical compounds used to fracture the well.
This water must be disposed of or recycled. Disposal typically means injecting the wastewater into deep, underground wells regulated by EPA under the Underground Injection Control (UIC) program. GAO concluded EPA’s injection-well safeguards sufficiently protect drinking water: Few allegations of drinking water contamination, and fewer confirmed cases of groundwater contamination, have been reported.
However, GAO’s report stressed EPA has failed to be proactive regarding emerging challenges, such as induced seismicity (manmade earthquakes) and excessive pressurization of rock formations. GAO urged EPA to update its regulations to reflect state laws.
EPA cannot help enforce state regulations unless they are incorporated into federal rules, which is why GAO is urging EPA to update its rules to reflect the superior wastewater-injection protections adopted by states.
Amazingly, EPA responded by stating, “Incorporating changes into federal regulations, particularly through the rulemaking process, was burdensome and time-consuming.” This is the same EPA that is seeking to expand its authority (and therefore its control over your everyday life) by creating rules to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and micromanaging prairie potholes and the puddles that form in your driveway after a summer rain. Yet it considers its current duties “too burdensome.”
Claiming protection of the environment is “too burdensome” is not an option for state regulators, which is why they are more effective than federal regulators on these matters.
For example, Ohio passed regulations allowing the state’s chief of the Division of Oil and Gas to require a number of tests or evaluations to address potential induced seismic risks for companies seeking permits for brine injection wells in Ohio.
Other state regulations considered “too burdensome” for EPA adoption include on-site inspection for all injection wells to review the condition and operation of the wells. California, Colorado, and North Dakota require monthly reporting on injection pressure, injection volume, and the type of fluid being injected.
It makes little sense to entrust EPA to handle more responsibility when it has been incapable of fulfilling the responsibilities it already has. This is especially obvious when the responsibility involves essentially copying the example already implemented by state agencies.
EPA claims it does not have the resources to implement this program properly, but EPA’s budget request for 2014 was $8.153 billion, more than the entire annual budgets of 20 percent of states nationwide … yet these states, which have fewer resources at their disposal, manage to get the job done just fine.
It is time to seriously consider replacing EPA with a Committee of the Whole of the 50 state environmental protection agencies, an idea suggested by Jay Lehr, science director and senior fellow at The Heartland Institute, where I serve as research fellow. According to the GAO, we might as well do so, since the states seem to be doing all the heavy lifting already.
Isaac Orr (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a research fellow for energy and environmental policy at The Heartland Institute.