EPA Program to Protect Underground Sources from Injection of Fluids Associated with Oil and Gas Production Needs Improvement



EPA Program to Protect Underground Sources from Injection of Fluids Associated with Oil and Gas Production Needs Improvement

Why GAO Did This Study

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.

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.

GAO was asked to review EPA’s

oversight of the class II program. This

report examines (1) EPA and state

roles, responsibilities, and resources

for the program, (2) safeguards to

protect drinking water, (3) EPA

oversight and enforcement of class II

programs, and (4) the reliability of

program data for reporting. GAO

reviewed federal and state laws and

regulations. GAO interviewed EPA and

state officials and reviewed class II

programs from a nongeneralizable

sample of eight states selected on the

basis of shale oil and gas regions and

the highest number of class II wells.

What GAO Recommends

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.

What GAO Found

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) role in the Underground Injection

Control (UIC) class II program is 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. EPA regions and

states use a mix of resources to manage class II programs, including EPA grant

funding, state funding, and federal and state personnel. EPA’s UIC grant funding

has remained at about $11 million for at least the past 10 years.

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. EPA officials said they

manage these risks on a state-by-state basis, and some states have additional

safeguards to address them. EPA has tasked its UIC Technical Workgroup with

reviewing induced seismicity associated with injection wells and possible

safeguards, but it does not plan reviews of other emerging risks, such as high

pressure in formations. Without reviews of these risks, class II programs may not

have the information necessary to fully protect underground drinking water.

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. Some EPA

officials said that incorporating changes into federal regulations through the

rulemaking process is burdensome and time-consuming. EPA has not, however,

evaluated alternatives for a more efficient process to approve and incorporate

state program requirements and changes into regulations. Without incorporating

these requirements and changes into federal regulations, EPA cannot enforce

them if a state does not take action or requests EPA’s assistance to take action.

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.

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