GAO Issues Report on EPA Oversight of Injection of Oil and Gas Waste

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently examined how EPA is managing the disposal of oil and gas liquid wastes through underground injection.  Their evaluation revealed some areas where GAO believes the existing program does not adequately address the risks. EPA’s Underground Injection Control (UIC) class II program is the regulatory program to oversee and enforce fluid injection into wells associated with oil and gas production, known as class II wells. EPA has approved 39 states to manage their own class II programs, and EPA regions are responsible for managing the programs in remaining states.

Class II programs from the eight selected states that GAO reviewed have safeguards, such as construction requirements for injection wells, to protect against contamination of underground sources of drinking water. Programs in two states are managed by EPA and rely on EPA safeguards, while the remaining six programs are state managed and have their own safeguards that EPA deemed effective at preventing such contamination. Overall, EPA and state program officials reported that these safeguards are protective, resulting in few known incidents of contamination. 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.  Without reviews of these risks, class II programs may not have the information necessary to fully protect underground drinking water.

GAO found that EPA is not consistently conducting two key oversight and enforcement activities for class II programs. First, EPA does not consistently conduct annual on-site state program evaluations as directed in guidance because, according to some EPA officials, the agency does not have the resources to do so. The agency has not, however, evaluated its guidance, which dates from the 1980s, to determine which activities are essential for effective oversight. Without such an evaluation, EPA does not know what oversight activities are most effective or necessary. Second, to enforce state class II requirements, under current agency regulations, EPA must approve and incorporate state program requirements and any changes to them into federal regulations through a rulemaking. EPA has not incorporated all such requirements and changes into federal regulations and, as a result, may not be able to enforce all state program requirements.

GAO also found that EPA collects a large amount of data on each class II program, but the data are not reliable (i.e., complete or comparable) to report at a national level. EPA is working on a national database that will allow it to report UIC results at a national level, but the database will not be fully implemented for at least 2 to 3 years.

GAO recommends that, among other things, EPA review emerging risks related to class II program safeguards and ensure that it can effectively oversee and efficiently enforce class II programs. EPA agreed with all but the enforcement recommendation. GAO continues to believe that EPA should take actions to ensure it can enforce state class II regulations, as discussed in the report.  You can go to the GAO website to access the full report which includes detailed recommendations and the EPA response.