A lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency was filed Wednesday by several environmental groups. They claim the agency has not updated regulations on how companies should dispose of oil and gas waste in more than 30 years.
“There’s been a huge industry change, and there hasn’t been any review of rules associated with waste,” said Dan Olson, executive director of San Juan Citizens Alliance. “They’ve (EPA) literally stopped looking at the rules.”
In the 1980s, the EPA determined that a review of its oil and gas regulations, as well as guidelines for states, was necessary every three years. The coalition of environmental groups claim the agency failed to meet its own expectations.
“Since that time, nearly nine successive three-year deadlines have passed with no further review,” said a notice of intent filed in August. “(Current regulations) do not specifically address issues relevant to the modern oil and gas industry.”
An EPA spokeswoman wrote in an email that the agency does not comment on pending litigation.
Bruce Baizel, an energy program director of Earthworks, said the EPA’s egregious inaction stems from political pressure. Industry persuaded Congress to exempt it from any cleanup stipulations, he said, and that’s the way companies have operated for more than three decades.
“The lawsuit would just mean EPA would have to have guidelines on what states need to have on the books,” he said. “It’s not that EPA would start regulating it.”
Colorado has rules related to exploration and production waste, as set by the state’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which is also responsible for enforcement, said spokesman Todd Hartman.
Yet Baizel said evidence crops up that proves companies skirt the law. A 2012 review of several injection permits in La Plata County found nearly half did not complete integrity tests. And this year, 40 wells operating illegally were ordered shut down in March.
“That’s why the lawsuit is so important,” he said. “If the state doesn’t feel someone looking over their shoulder, they will get lax about it.”
However, the lawsuit seeks to address oil and gas waste on the national level, as recent disasters – such as oil spills in North Dakota, methane leaks in California and drilling-related earthquakes across the country – become more regular.
Julie Archer, project manager at the West Virginia Surface Owners’ Rights Organization, said that state’s attempt to improve regulation on horizontal drilling fails to carefully consider current methods of waste disposal.
“It’s past time for the EPA to provide clear guidance on how these wastes should be handled to protect our communities,” she said.
La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt said the EPA’s lack of enforcement on oil and gas waste seems to be a systemic problem for the agency. She related the issue to the Gold King Mine spill, noting that the EPA since 1983 was supposed to post a bond for every mining company in case of a disastrous event.
“They never enforced that,” Lachelt said. “It seems to be an issue throughout not just the EPA but other agencies not living up to their own book of rules.”
Plaintiffs in the lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, include the Environmental Integrity Project, Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthworks, Responsible Drilling Alliance, San Juan Citizens Alliance, West Virginia Surface Owners’ Rights Organization, and the Center for Health, Environment and Justice.