InsideClimate News Misses the Mark Again on Fracking and Waste Disposal

A recent article published by InsideClimate News (ICN) – in cooperation with the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) – purports to find a gap in regulatory oversight of solid waste disposal associated with hydraulic fracturing.  The article raises concerns about existing regulations and the threat of pollutants, including winds carrying volatile organic compounds (VOCs) outside of approved disposal locations.  Counterintuitively, the article presumes hazards from solid waste disposal because the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found no need to designate this material as hazardous.

The article was compiled following a presumed 18-month investigation of the ongoing energy boom in Texas, and it focused on the potential approval of a permit for a waste disposal facility near the city of Nordheim, which is in the heart of the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas. The site’s necessity has arisen from the increase in oil and gas development in the region and the lack of solid disposal waste sites in the immediate vicinity.  To help bolster the fear derived from disposal facilities, the article quotes from a number of concerned individuals, but there are no specifics given as to where harm has actually taken place from properly managed storage facilities.  Generalized concern, thin on facts, is a familiar path for ICN, as we have stated before.

The oil and gas industry is one of the most regulated sectors of the entire economy, with overlapping local, state, and federal regulatory structures in place to insure the safety of people and the environment.  Attempts to disregard this fact have been a common practice for groups opposed to domestic energy production, including ICN and CPI.  The practice of solid waste disposal has been continually assessed and regulated for decades, with the U.S. EPA asserting that the practice is well managed at the state level.

The article does admit that permits are required for facilities that meet thresholds for environmental impacts, as outlined by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and thePlugins 10 Texas Railroad Commission (RRC).  Additionally, further restrictions and oversight are in place that prohibit any action that may adversely affect human health or welfare.  But for some, regulations are not doing an adequate job if oil and gas projects are allowed to be permitted at all.  The U.S. EPA understood full well that redundant and unnecessary oversight of solid waste disposal would not only curtail America’s energy industry, but also needlessly overlay regulations that are already effectively handled at the local and state level.

The rationale for ICN’s focus on new regulations promulgated by federal agencies can be summed up by the U.S. EPA’s own findings, and it is a key reason why anti-drilling voices continue to press for arbitrary and unnecessary regulations.  When it comes to permits and delays, the U.S. EPA has a firm grasp on the potential implications, as it outlined in Regulatory Determination for Oil and Gas and Geothermal Exploration, Development and Production Wastes:

“Since the States and EPA have consistently required long periods of time to process Subtitle C permits, regulation under Subtitle C could delay the start of operations at new facilities. These delays would be particularly disruptive to the exploration phase of oil and gas development.”

Critically, the U.S. EPA did not find that solid wastes from oil and gas development met the threshold for hazardous materials.

Nonetheless, the ICN article continues to link hearsay with fact, asserting:

“A few small studies involving untreated drilling wastewater—the part of the waste stream that is usually found at drilling sites and has the highest concentration of chemicals—have produced data and anecdotal evidence that emissions can reach dangerously high levels.”

But the U.S. EPA’s own assessment outlines factors that are relevant for hazardous waste disposal and found that:

“The presence of constituents in concentrations exceeding health or environmental-based standards does not necessarily mean that these wastes pose significant risks to human health and the environment.”

The ICN article laments that “the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state’s air regulator, has limited jurisdiction over such facilities, and only those with certain types of equipment require air permits to operate.”  Texas regulatory bodies, namely RRC and TCEQ, are identified as not having sufficient authority to regulate open pit waste disposal.  But a quick review of these agencies’ activities counters this assessment. In fact, these regulatory bodies have continued to process and review the energy expansion that has allowed the United States to become one of the world’s largest energy producers while also maintaining high standard for environmental protection.

Searching for a problem as a rationale to stop domestic energy development is not new. The fact is, genuine concerns for the safety of communities and the environment have helped develop robust state and federal regulations, and to codify best practices. The Center for Public Integrity and InsideClimate News – who are funded by the same deep-pocketed foundations that are bankrolling the “ban fracking” movement – don’t want to present that story, because it doesn’t cater to their preconceived story of harm.  They’re certainly entitled to do that, but for the rest of us, let’s continue to focus on the facts.

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