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Monday, April 7, 2014

Lots of info, little illumination on oil/gas waste management

U.S. EPA has released two new reports on the waste generated by oil and gas exploration and production - waste which is exempt from federal regulation. The reports are, respectively, compilations of existing state regulations and existing “best practices” on the subject.

…specifically focused on surface storage and disposal facilities managing produced waters, drilling muds, drilling cuttings, hydraulic fracturing return fluids and various other waste streams intrinsically related to oil and gas E&P…

The report doesn't attempt to classify states according to regulatory stringency, but does identify commonalities and notable shared shortcomings:
Amongst [the] common characteristics was the presence of some liner requirements for pits or impoundments, secondary containment requirements for tanks, setback requirements for solid waste management facilities from critical infrastructure or inhabited development, minimum freeboard requirements for fluid levels in pits, impoundments, and tanks, various inspection, operation, and maintenance requirements, permitting of solid waste management facilities requirements, and closure and reclamation requirements. Some regulatory parameters that were not typically encountered were groundwater monitoring requirements for solid waste management facilities, leachate collection requirements, air monitoring of solid waste management facilities, and waste characterization requirements.

The second report is a companion to the first.  Compilation of Publicly Available Sources of Voluntary Management Practices for Oil and Gas Exploration & Production (E&P) Wastes As They Address Pits, Tanks, and Land Application reviews more than 80 publicly available sources of voluntary management practices. Again, EPA says that it didn’t evaluate the adequacy or protectiveness of any of the voluntary management practices summarized in the document. All it would say, essentially, is:
Based on the results of the review, EPA agrees with the recommendation of the Shale Gas Production Subcommittee of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB) that the federal government should encourage the development of additional and improved “best practices.”
The Subcommittee favors a national approach including regional mechanisms that recognize differences in geology, land use, water resources, and regulation.

These two studies provide a lot of information, but little illumination. As NRDC’s Amy Mall writes in her blog post on these studies:

…the document with the voluntary practices is a lot longer than the document with the state-mandated practices. Some of the voluntary practices are recommended by industry sources, so why shouldn't they be required?

Indeed, EPA’s compilations leave many aching questions.  Such as: 
  • Are any of the BMPs really “best”?  Shouldn’t they be compared and evaluated for stringency and protectiveness?
  • What companies are using what set(s) of BMPs?  And which ones are not?
  • What states are requiring the use of somebody’s BMPs?  And what about the federal government when it leases on public land for resource development? And are any "best" practices they might be using the right ones? 
There must be objective, science-based standards to measure and assess the protectiveness of any set of guidelines that calls itself “best.” Disclosure and reporting on their adoption and use by governments and companies should be expected.  And those standards should not be static.  They need to continuously improve as more data and experience accumulates – something else that the Shale Gas Subcommittee of SEAB called for.

More fundamentally, I agree with Amy that development of yet more BMPs is not nearly enough. They are not a substitute for strong, continuously-improving regulations that are based on the best available evidence and practice.

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