Student Blawg: Oil and Gas Producers Don’t Belong in the Free Lunch Line

By: Anonymous Student

 

I applaud the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for finalizing a rule which includes the first federal air pollution standards for hydraulic fracturing operations under the Clean Air Act. Now it is time for EPA to do the same for water quality standards under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) and Clean Water Act (CWA).

Oil and gas developers currently take advantage of a major exemption from the SDWA. Specifically, hydraulic fracturing operations are not subject to provisions relating to the Underground Injection Control (UIC) program. The UIC program regulates injection of fluids into the subsurface for purposes of disposing contaminated wastewater or storing gas. Even though hydraulic fracturing involves injecting fracking fluids into the subsurface, oil and gas developers are exempt from the UIC program. This means they do not have to monitor groundwater before, during, or after drilling operations.

Similarly, the entire oil and gas industry enjoys a broad exemption from the CWA. In this case, hydraulic fracturing operations are not required to obtain a NPDES permit for non-reportable storm water discharge. A 2007 study by EPA, which evaluates the impact of gas well sites on storm water runoff in City of Denton, Texas, concluded this exemption allows the industry to release, without a permit, storm water which contains high levels of total suspended and dissolved solids, chlorides, metals, alkalinity, and pH.

These exemptions allow oil and gas producers to operate with impunity. They are not being held accountable for groundwater and surface water contamination caused by their wells. This is most distressing because the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission plans to increase hydraulic fracturing permits, at a minimum, by 20% every year for the next three years. If oil and gas producers are allowed to increase production without monitoring groundwater or applying for storm water discharge permits, it is conceivable aquifers, wells, and tributary streams all over the country will become devastated.

A strong argument can be made hydraulic fracturing contaminates groundwater. The EPA is currently reviewing scientific evidence and reports from local water districts and residents which suggest a direct link between hydraulic fracturing operations and contaminated groundwater and surface water. It is my hope EPA, state agencies, and producers will take these findings seriously and adjust regulatory requirements and industry practices accordingly.

With that in mind, the time has come to eliminate the UIC and NPDES permit exemptions in the SDWA and CWA. Oil and gas producers can certainly afford compliance requirements, especially since modern hydraulic fracturing techniques have made oil and gas extraction much cheaper. In addition, the regulatory framework within the SDWA and CWA already exists, and the oil and gas industry exemption provisions need only be repealed.

I am confident the oil and gas lobby will claim this is an enormous regulatory burden, and I can already hear folks arguing federal environmental agencies should be dismantled, not empowered. To this I say: I do not want to be the oil and gas industry’s next victim in The Tragedy of the Commons. The oil and gas industry has never effectively regulated themselves in regards to minimizing their impact on the environment. We cannot expect them to start now.

The oil and gas industry should be held to the same standards as other industries. Producers have filed through the free lunch line long enough. When EPA and Congress are asked to repeal the oil and gas industry exemptions from SDWA and CWA, let’s support them.

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