*UPDATE* A Much Needed Injection of Truth

UPDATE (9:21am ET, 11/13/2012): A story in E&E News (subs. req’d) casts even more doubt on the validity of the ProPublica “report” on injection wells, specifically with respect to the claim that Pennsylvania has deemed such wells to be unsafe: The EPA has issued permits for two wastewater disposal wells in that state, which are in an addition to a handful of other disposal wells in Pennsylvania. Once again, this begs the question: How can ProPublica claim Pennsylvania deems the wells to be unsafe if they not only exist in the state, but also continue to be permitted?

Original post, November 8, 2012

A recent “investigative report” from ProPublica argued that injection wells used by the oil and natural gas industry aren’t subject to enough regulation, and the rules that do apply are “ignored or circumvented.” Fortunately for the public, the facts demonstrate these wells are in fact tightly regulated, deemed safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and subject to much more oversight than the authors of the report would like you to believe.

ProPublica’s research hinges upon a handful of anecdotes, which are buttressed by statements suggesting the problems are indicative of a much bigger issue: there’s just not enough regulation of the oil and natural gas industry, especially wastewater disposal wells, and there certainly aren’t enough inspections taking place.

It’s a troubling and even frightening story. It would be even scarier if it were true.

We all know opponents go to great lengths to exaggerate risks, using loaded terms like “loophole” and “unregulated” – even (and especially) when neither term accurately describes the situation. So, it’s worth putting some of ProPublica’s claims under the microscope – or magnifying glass – to see just how much they diverge from reality.


ProPublica: “Injection wells have proliferated over the last 60 years, in large part because they are the cheapest, most expedient way to manage hundreds of billions of gallons of industrial waste generated in the U.S. each year. Yet the dangers of injection are well known…” (emphasis added)

  • True to form, this brief description of injection wells omits the fact that EPA itself considers injection wells perfectly safe for wastewater disposal. In fact, ProPublica spends nearly 1,000 words describing “risks,” “dangers,” and “understaffed” regulatory agencies – based upon a handful of opinions – before ever including comment from the federal agency that actually regulates disposal wells. Indeed, a spokesperson from EPA told ProPublica that Class II wells are “a viable technique for subsurface storage and disposal of fluids when properly done.”
    • To be fair, ProPublica does include comment from Mario Salazar, a former technical adviser to the EPA, earlier in the story. Of course, Mr. Salazar has also written extensively about his interest in the United States switching from oil and natural gas to nuclear power, so he’s not exactly an unbiased source. Mr. Salazar also referred to those who disagree with him on EPA regulations as “Right Wing zealots” who simply want to “implement their corporate agenda.”
  • Also left unmentioned is the extensive information available on the EPA’s website, which describes how Class II wells “protect drinking water resources” and “prevent surface contamination of soil and water.” A separate section of EPA’s website describes all injection wells – not just the Class II variety – as a “safe” option for disposal.
  • So, in sum, ProPublica used several carefully selected anecdotes and quotes to suggest disposal wells are inherently dangerous before even mentioning the fact that the EPA – which actually oversees regulation of Class II wells – considers them to be safe. Granted, the title of the report strongly suggested that the content was going to lean toward a particular conclusion, but the fear-filled opening paragraphs certainly set the tone for this piece.


ProPublica: “Our examination shows that, amid growing use of Class 2 wells, fundamental safeguards are sometimes being ignored or circumvented.” (emphasis added)

  • If there are inherent flaws and widespread problems with any aspect of the oil and gas development process, those problems deserve proper investigation. More importantly, they warrant solutions that will actually fix the issues and alleviate concerns as much as possible.
  • But the best ProPublica can do to claim that disposal wells are dangerous is to say that “sometimes” the rules aren’t followed. Is that really the foundation on which we should make major and potentially costly new decisions?
  • Make no mistake: there are stringent laws at the state and federal level already on the books for disposal wells, and those laws should be tightly enforced (we’ll examine those with more specificity later in this post).
  • But we also know that regardless of what the law is, or the industry it covers, there will be bad actors who try to cheat. For example: Refiners trying to comply with the federal Renewable Fuel Standard have been victims of massive fraud from companies who gamed the system and sold them credits that aren’t associated with any actual fuels. Some solar companies that were awarded grant money by the U.S. Treasury have misrepresented the cost of their projects in an attempt to scam consumers and the government. Could anyone credibly claim that these respective bad apples are indicative of the industries as a whole? Of course not.
  • While it may be convenient to use anecdotal stories and the “sometimes” narrative to malign oil and natural gas development, it does not accurately encapsulate the entire industry, nor is it the basis on which we should judge industries that add value to the U.S. economy.


ProPublica: “Ohio injected twice as much waste in 2011 as it did in 2006 and is evaluating applications for dozens of new injection sites…largely for waste exported by Pennsylvania and New York, where such wells are deemed unsafe.” (emphasis added)

  • Did Pennsylvania and New York really declare injection wells to be unsafe? Let’s take a look.
  • Pennsylvania:
    • Pa. DEP Secretary Michael Krancer: “Where wastewater cannot be treated and reused/recycled, the best solution for disposing of high TDS wastewater is deep well injection. Using deep well injection should result in no discharge to either surface or ground water, another fact I pointed out in the NRDC letter. Although much of the best geology in the Commonwealth for deep well injection is currently being used for gas storage, exploration for new injection sites does continue, and DEP and EPA will continue to process any permit applications in accordance with applicable laws and regulations.” (July 31, 2012)
      • Krancer added: “While DEP staff and I are ready and willing to work to improve the UIC program in Pennsylvania, given the current structure of the program, I cannot agree that enacting a moratorium on new permits is a sound position.”
    • Former Pa. DEP Secretary John Hanger: “The good news about PA drilling wastewater practices is that nearly all shale gas wastewater is either recycled or deep well injected.” (Sept. 18, 2012)
    • NPR, StateImpact Pennsylvania: “Several new deep injection wells are in the planning process, one in Brady Township, Clearfield County and two in Warren County.” (Aug. 7, 2012)
    • Pa. Dept. of Conservation and Natural Resources: “If the disposal method is to be an injection well, two permits are needed: one from the PADEP and another from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Appendix 5 of the Oil and Gas Operators Manual and Section 78.18 of the Pennsylvania Code…provide more information on these permitting issues.” (DCNR website)
  • New York:
    • NY DEC: “No significant adverse impacts are identified with regard to the disposal of liquid wastes.” (Draft SGEIS, 2011, ES p. 12)
    • NY Department of Environmental Conservation: “Wells for Disposal of Brine Produced with Oil and/or Gas” (DEC’s website lists the disposal wells located in and regulated by the state of New York).
  • If these states believe that injection wells are “unsafe,” as ProPublica alleges, then how are new ones being proposed there? More importantly, why are the regulators saying that the wells are safe? Perhaps ProPublica knew that its argument about the “dangers” of wastewater disposal was actually quite weak, and thus chose to pad its narrative with a convenient (and quite transparent) stretching of the truth.


ProPublica: “The EPA employs just six people to check its wells across the southeast, not just in Kentucky, but in Tennessee and Florida, too. Those same people are also responsible for working with state inspection programs in North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi, which have their own inspection staffs.” (emphasis added)

  • There is a clever rhetorical trick being used here: by focusing on the number of people employed by EPA, ProPublica can make it seem like only a half dozen people are responsible for overseeing an enormous area.
  • But does that tell the whole story? EID spoke with the Governor’s office in Kentucky, which informed us that the state has 16 employees who assist EPA in that state alone. Part of the job is – you guessed it – inspecting injection wells.
  • According to the EPA, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi all have primacy at the state level for regulating injection wells. This means that the EPA has already approved their programs as being “as stringent as the federal requirements,” although EPA notes that state rules may also be “more stringent” than even those at the federal level.
  • What ProPublica either does not understand (or simply does not want to talk about) is that the EPA works closely with states because the states have extensive experience in these matters. The UIC program that governs injection wells is designed to be a collaborative effort between states and the federal government, so the EPA relies on state expertise to make sure the program operates as it should.
  • Put differently, the program is designed such that the federal government won’t have to hire dozens of new staff members that would be doing what the states are already doing well. That means fewer taxpayer dollars are wasted, and the EPA has access to the best expertise in any given region.
  • Of course, if your goal is to present inadequacy where there is none, including details like “efficiency” and “how the program is supposed to work” will only get in the way.

Speaking of state regulatory environments, let’s now take a look at what states are doing specifically with respect to injection well monitoring and enforcement. All of the proceeding information came directly as a result of phone calls and/or emails to the regulators in the respective states:

  • Alabama: According to its FY 2010 report, the state had 247 Class II injection wells, and 18 of them failed a mechanical integrity test (MIT), of which 15 were brought back into compliance within six months.
    • NOTE: Ramona Nye with the Texas Railroad Commission told us that “a failed mechanical integrity test does not mean that a well has leaked,” and that failure can often be “easily resolved by tightening well head components, re-seating a packer, or replacing one or more joints of tubing.”
  • California: Of the 289 MIT issues found in 2009, 97 percent of them were corrected within 90 days. In 2010, the number of inspections increased by 47 percent, and the number of UIC inspectors increased by 25 percent. The number of MIT issues, meanwhile, declined by 21 percent. Of the MIT issues in 2010, 86 percent were corrected within 90 days.
  • Colorado: Denise Onyskiw from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) says that every UIC well is inspected every year, per the state’s agreement with the U.S. EPA, and if any wells are missed they must be reported to the EPA. Any MIT issue requires repairing and plugging within six months, during which time the well itself must not be utilized.
  • Mississippi: In 2010, there were more than 1,000 inspections of the state’s 500 active Class II disposal wells and 577 active enhanced oil recovery (EOR) wells. There were only five MIT issues found, which comes out to an MIT incident rate of less than one half of one percent.
  • Ohio: With passage of the state’s new UIC rules (effective date: October 1, 2012), Ohio “now has the most stringent Class II saltwater injection well regulations in the United States,” according to an email from Tom Tomastik with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ProPublica cites Tomastik as a “national expert on injection well regulation”). Tomastik added that Ohio received primacy for its injection well program in 1983, and since that time they “have not had any subsurface [water] contamination” from Class II injection well operations.
  • Oklahoma: Of all the violations found in 2011, 93 percent of salt water disposal (SWD) wells and 95 percent of enhanced recovery (ER) wells were brought back into compliance within 90 days. The violations themselves were also overwhelmingly administrative in nature: There were 1,766 SWD wells with violations, of which 1,725 (98 percent) were for “monitoring and reporting” errors. For ER wells, 96 percent of violations were “monitoring and reporting” issues.
  • Texas: In 2010, there were approximately 3,100 MIT violations, all of which were brought back into compliance within 90 days. And remember, as Ramona Nye with the Texas RRC noted, a violation does not necessarily indicate a leak, and in fact often times represents an issue that can be easily resolved.
    • Interestingly, Ms. Nye shared this information (that an MIT incident doesn’t necessarily indicate a leak) with ProPublica after it issued a separate report earlier this year on injection wells. That report suggested when there is an MIT failure it can lead to “serious consequences,” not the least of which is water contamination from a leak. The author of the report made no mention, and issued no update or correction, explaining the fact that Ms. Nye conveyed.

The problem with writing a report that works backwards from a conclusion is that the authors omit or conveniently ignore crucial details that would provide a more complete representation of the issues discussed. That’s exactly what happened with ProPublica’s latest report, and it raises several questions: Why were those details withheld? Why was the information presented without proper context? Wouldn’t adding some of this information actually strengthen the report by demonstrating that the authors were genuinely interested in the truth – not just building a narrative they had already formulated?

The reality is this: state regulators, in conjunction with the U.S. EPA, carefully oversee injection wells with tight regulations and high operating standards. The incident rate for these wells is quite low, which is a testament to the efficacy of the regulations in place, as well as the industry’s commitment to safety. Like any industry that has achieved economies of scale – which, in this case, means delivering abundant supplies of affordable energy to consumers – there are going to be errors. And, yes, there will also be bad actors. The question then becomes, whether it’s the oil and natural gas industry or anything else: are regulations adequate enough to reduce those risks to manageable levels?

ProPublica’s report focuses on examples of errors and bad actors, but does not even attempt to engage in a discussion about relative risk, much less mitigation. The authors found enough self-serving quotes to support their thesis, and then cherry-picked or even blatantly misrepresented data to suggest the problems identified were indicative of a more systemic problem.

As we’ve shown here, ProPublica has not captured a snapshot of the entire industry, but rather inflated a handful of cases in an attempt to paint the industry with broad and inaccurate strokes.

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