Congressional watchdog urges EPA to step up actions on fracking by Michael Muskal, July 28, 2014, Los Angeles Times
The Government Accountability Office is calling on the federal Environmental Protection Agency to step up enforcement of water contamination and seismic activity associated with fracking, the high-pressure injection of fluids into wells to extract oil and natural gas.
In a report made public Monday, the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, found that the EPA’s efforts were hindered because the guidance it gives other agencies hasn’t been updated since the 1980s. In addition, the GAO said, the EPA lacks the resources needed for enforcement, such as annual on-site evaluations. The issue is important because fracking has been increasing.
“Every day in the United States, at least 2 billion gallons of fluids are injected into over 172,000 wells to enhance oil and gas production, or to dispose of fluids brought to the surface during the extraction of oil and gas resources,” the GAO said. “These wells are subject to regulation to protect drinking water sources under EPA’s UIC class II program and approved state class II programs. Because much of the population relies on underground sources for drinking water, these wells have raised concerns about the safety of the nation’s drinking water.”
Responding to the report, the EPA said it generally agreed with the GAO’s findings.
Environmental groups praised the GAO. “The federal government’s watchdog is saying what communities across the country have known for years: Fracking is putting Americans at risk,” said Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “From drinking-water contamination to man-made earthquakes, the reckless way oil and gas companies deal with their waste is a big problem. Outdated rules and insufficient enforcement are largely to blame. EPA needs to rein in this industry run amok.”
The EPA has approved 39 states to manage their own regulatory programs, and takes direct responsibility for the rest of the states and programs involving injection of fluids into wells, according to the GAO. Technically, the program oversees what are called class II wells. In its report, the GAO examined eight states, two directly managed by the EPA and six that are the responsibility of the states, but with safeguards approved by the EPA.
“Overall, EPA and state program officials reported that these safeguards are protective, resulting in few known incidents of contamination,” the GAO said. “However, the safeguards do not address emerging underground injection risks, such as seismic activity and overly high pressure in geologic formations leading to surface outbreaks of fluids.”
EPA has a group working to review “seismicity associated with injection wells and possible safeguards, but it does not plan reviews of other emerging risks, such as high pressure in formations,” the GAO said. “Without reviews of these risks, class II programs may not have the information necessary to fully protect underground drinking water.” [Emphasis added]
Drinking Water: EPA Program to Protect Underground Sources from Injection of Fluids Associated With Oil and Gas Needs Improvement by United States Government Accountability Office, June 2014, released July 28, 2014
Note: Other pathways that are not included in the graphic include fluid movement from one part of a formation to another that contains an underground source of drinking water and fluid injection into a drinking water source.
According to EPA, the pathways include:
1. fluid movement through a hole or other fault in the well’s casing, or
steel pipe that is placed into the wellbore—that is, the hole in which
the well is placed. Casing can prevent a well hole, or bore, from
collapsing and, in specific cases, also serves as a means for injecting
fluids into the underground formation in which they will be stored.
2. fluid movement through the space between the casing and the
wellbore. Such movement can occur when friction and resistance are
created in the formation into which fluid is being injected, and the fluid
takes the path of least resistance back through the casing and the
3. fluid movement from an injection zone, or the underground formation
into which it is injected, through the confining formations around it.
When they are injected into a formation, fluids under pressure will
normally travel laterally through the formation, away from the well.
Typically, the formation should be separated from overlying
formations that contain drinking water by a confining layer, or a layer
of relatively impermeable rock; however, if there are permeable or
fractured areas in the confining layer, fluids can move from the
injection formation into a formation that serves as a source of drinking
4. fluid movement through abandoned or completed wells that are not
properly plugged to prevent movement of fluid. This occurs when
fluids injected into a formation move laterally through the formation
and encounter a well that has been abandoned and not properly
plugged or a well that is complete and operating, but has not been
properly completed (i.e., weaknesses are present). Fluids injected
under pressure will take the path of least resistance and flow up the
wells and into underground formations containing sources of drinking
water or even onto the land surface.
5. fluid movement from one part of a formation to another that is not
meant to be used for wastewater storage. In some cases, fluids may
be injected into an aquifer that in another area is designated for use
as a drinking water source. In these instances, the injection formation
does not have any confining layers or other geologic formations to
separate it from the drinking water source. According to EPA officials,
injection is typically done when the flow of an aquifer is away from the
protected part of the aquifer, or when the injection pressure is low
enough to prevent movement to the protected part of the aquifer.
6. fluid injection directly into a drinking water source. This occurs when
fluid is injected directly into an underground source of drinking water.
The Safe Drinking Water Act and EPA regulations prohibit injection of
contaminants directly into an underground drinking water source, if
the presence of that contaminant may cause a violation of any primary
drinking water regulation or otherwise effect human health.
[Refer also to:
Congress Letters to Fracing Companies, including Encana asking about all allegations of water contamination caused by their fracing, July 18, 2010
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