Activists Push Phony Talking Points on Injection Well ‘Exemptions’ and Drinking Water

Recently, activists and researchers with close ties to the anti-fracking echo-chamber have been pushing claims that oil and natural gas producers are injecting “toxic chemicals” into drinking water sources – and the EPA allows it through “exemptions.”

Most recently, the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Clean Water Action, the Powder River Basin Resource Council and the New Mexico Environmental Law Center filed a petition asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to stop allowing these “exemptions.” Just a few days later, Stanford researchers Rob Jackson and Dominic DiGiulio released a study claiming that industry is “allowed to inject toxic chemicals into underground sources of drinking water” in Pavillion, Wyo., due to these so-called exemptions in the law.

These accusations are absurd. Here are the facts:

Fact #1: Using overly broad definition of “Underground Source of Drinking Water” to scare the public

The press release for the Jackson/DiGiulio study states,

“Only one industry is allowed to inject toxic chemicals into underground sources of drinking water – hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking.’”

But the actual study states,

“The Fort Union Formation is not used for water supply in the Pavillion area.” (emphasis added)

Similarly, Amy Mall of NRDC claims,

“EPA is giving dirty energy companies its blessing to destroy potential future sources around the country.”

Yet the NRDC petition admits that the “exemption” in the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1982 is for aquifers that “do not currently serve as a source of drinking water” and “cannot now and will not in the future serve as a source of drinking water.”

So how can the Stanford researchers, NRDC, and other greens possibly claim that companies are injecting “toxic chemicals” into drinking water sources, while also acknowledging that these areas are not being used for drinking water?

The answer has to do with the U.S. EPA’s definition of an Underground Source of Drinking Water (USDW). To be classified as a USDW, an underground reservoir merely has to exhibit certain characteristics that could make it a usable aquifer. They know that (since they define what a USDW actually is), but what sort of media attention would you get by saying the companies aren’t injecting into the community’s drinking water supply? That’s not scary at all!

Importantly, rock layers that contain oil or natural gas also typically contain water. That’s why, when companies produce oil and natural gas, they often also produce water, and sometimes in large quantities.  These zones aren’t ubiquitous, either. In some areas, the oil or natural gas concentrations are higher. In others, the water content is really high. But there is nothing controversial about producing oil and natural gas in areas where oil and natural gas are located, or injecting produced water back into areas where the water came from during oil and natural gas production.

Fact #2: States aren’t “trashing” aquifers with injection wells

NRDC brings up California to argue that water resources are depleting in certain areas, and aquifers that were once deemed unfit for drinking water use are now being reconsidered. As NRDC states,

“At least 120 California communities have applied for state drought-related drinking water funding.” (page 24)

It adds,

“In just seven years, from 2006 to 2013, groundwater desalination capacity in California more than tripled.” (page 23)

But the injection wells that fall under these exemptions have not contaminated drinking water in California. As the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) explained:

“[T]est results indicate that the injection wells have not degraded groundwater quality.” [emphasis added]

As Rock Zierman, chief executive officer for the California Independent Petroleum Association,  succinctly put it:

“State regulators have successfully regulated injection of produced water from oil and gas operations for decades. To date, there has not been a single case where the state has allowed injected water to taint drinkable water. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has asked the state to help it update the paperwork used to regulate the practice [of injection] and the state has developed a work plan to do so. Those are the facts.”

Moreover as a 2014 EID guest post from Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association, and Rock Zierman explained in response to an erroneous Los Angeles Times article:

“Furthermore, produced water can only be reinjected into geological zones where the water is not suitable for drinking. Most of the time the produced water is reinjected – again, cleaner than when it came out of the ground – right back into the same oil-bearing zone from which it came.

It’s also important for your readers to know that no contamination was found or alleged in Kern County as the editorial suggested.

DOGGR’s move to examine the injection process on 11 wells in Kern County was done, in its own words, out of “an abundance of caution” but did not stem from any contamination. Several of those 11 have since been deemed by DOGGR to be fully compliant and have been reinstated.”

Pretty clear.

Fact #3: State regulations go above and beyond EPA’s requirements 

States have very strict regulations governing Class II injection wells that typically go above and beyond EPA’s baseline requirements. And in the case of exemptions, the state can’t just say, “we approve;” it must first send the request to EPA to see if it has a chance of approval. If it does, EPA doesn’t just approve it either—there’s a notification process that includes public comment and a hearing before EPA makes any decisions.

Even when approved, the injection well would still fall under state regulations that are updated much more frequently and are based on the more specific geographic conditions of each state. In fact, to give one example, the EPA recently reviewed Ohio’s UIC program giving the regulations high marks, and Mike Paque from the Groundwater Protection Council said,

“Ohio is at the forefront of regulating Class II injection wells and is continuously advancing regulations of the UIC program. ODNR’s ongoing efforts provide the necessary protections to help ensure that Ohio’s underground drinking water resources are safe.”

Since Ohio was granted primacy over its UIC program in 1983, there has not been a single case of groundwater contamination.


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