New EPA Report Shows Limited Government Oversight of Fracking
As population growth continues, our consumption of natural resources – including fossil fuels – has reached critical mass. In our effort to find a quick-fix through technology, we grasp at “solutions” like fracking – which irreversibly destroy our environment and provide only a very short window of extra time. (For more information on fracking, see our NPG Forum paper Is Fracking an Answer? To What?)
At present, the waste generated by oil and gas exploration and production (called “E&P”), which includes fracking, is exempt from federal hazardous waste regulations. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) “is our principal federal law intended to ensure the safe management of waste… in order to best protect human health and the environment. RCRA has separate provisions for hazardous waste. Congress gave EPA the authority to determine whether oil and gas wastes should be subject [to those provisions]. In 1988, EPA ruled that oil and gas wastes are exempt from these hazardous waste provisions – even if the waste is toxic.”
For years, environmental groups have documented case after case where E&P waste has caused environmental damage, polluted the air and threatened local drinking water supplies, and harmed the health of humans and wildlife. Armed with this evidence, they have enlisted the help of sympathetic legislators to lobby both Congress and the EPA. Along with thousands of concerned citizens, they have consistently asked that the federal government close the legal loophole which permits this reckless dumping. So far, their efforts have failed.
With so much controversy and public outcry, the EPA finally conceded to a study and report of the state regulations for E&P waste – looking to see if there was, in fact, a need for federal oversight. Their April 1, 2014 report, Review of State Oil and Natural Gas Exploration, Development, and Production (E&P) Solid Waste Management Regulations, evaluated ordinances in 26 states. The EPA’s limited, and fairly ineffectual, conclusion was that the “state regulations vary greatly in scope and detail.”
According to a review by the NRDC, the EPA report adds that many states have “some” requirements to lessen the potential damage – but not all states have regulations, and the rules they do have may not be particularly strong. According to the NRDC review, the EPA found it was not common for states to require air or groundwater monitoring, leachate collection, or waste characterization. These standards are critical to protect local air and water supplies – as well as in determining what kind of waste is present, how it may be seeping into surrounding areas, and the necessary precautions to prevent contamination.
The NRDC also discusses a second EPA report, which reviewed more than 80 publicly-available sources of “voluntary management practices” for oil and gas E&P. The NRDC found this list of industry-made “best practices” to be much, much longer than the list of what is required by some states’ laws. In its second report, the EPA recommended that the federal government “encourage the development of additional and improved ‘best practices.’” However, as eloquently stated by the NRDC, “development of practices is not enough. If they’re not required, they won’t be used everywhere they are needed to protect clean water, clean air, human health, and wildlife.” NPG concurs with this assessment: why not require what is already industry-suggested?
Fracking has been highly controversial since its inception – and the reasons for concern keep growing. Recently, after a series of earthquakes which were likely triggered by local fracking activities, the state of Ohio’s Department of Natural Resources announced that it will toughen its “permit conditions for drilling activities near faults and areas of seismic activity.” According to the NRDC, “this is now the 4th documented case of induced seismic activity linked to hydraulic fracturing, and the latest in a series of earthquakes in Ohio caused by oil and gas production activities. The earlier quakes resulted from disposal of waste water into underground injection wells” – which is part of the waste disposal regulations loophole.
To NPG, the glaring reality is much deeper than energy conservation, new technology, or specific federal regulations on waste management. We must address the central problem – U.S. overpopulation – and adopt reasonable, responsible population policies which will act to slow, halt, and eventually reverse our population growth. As our already greatly overpopulated nation continues to grow, our energy demands will also increase – and the environmental consequences will balloon alongside them. Until we address and resolve the question of our population’s size and growth, fracking will be only one issue in a deepening spiral of supply versus demand. In the meantime, we must enact strict regulations and smarter technologies until our population – and consumption – are reduced to much smaller, sustainable levels.
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