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What the GAO Report on Injection Wells Actually Said

This week the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report evaluating the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) program on underground injection wells. GAO concluded that EPA has some room for improvement, mostly with respect to data collection and additional risk assessment.

Immediately, news outlets and anti-fracking activists pounced.  The LA Times produced this inaccurate headline: “Congressional watchdog urges EPA to step up actions on fracking” while the NRDC put out a press release proclaiming that “fracking is putting Americans at risk” and “EPA needs to rein in this industry run amok.”

But, as usual, when you actually read the report, that’s not at all what it said. Here are a few key facts to know about GAO’s report, notwithstanding what some of the headlines would have you to believe.

Fact #1: GAO was evaluating injection wells, not fracking

The GAO report wasn’t about hydraulic fracturing. It was about wastewater disposal. The EPA has jurisdiction over the latter; it doesn’t regulate the former (states do). So to suggest that the GAO report “urges EPA to step up action on fracking” or suggests that “fracking is putting Americans at risk” is utterly inaccurate. If GAO were suggesting EPA increase its regulation on fracking, it would certainly be major news, because GAO would be recommending that EPA defy federal law.

Fact #2: GAO said safeguards are in place to protect groundwater

GAO confirmed that all of the state programs it reviewed have safeguards in place to prevent water contamination, and the people in charge of those programs reported few if any problems.  From the summary of the report:

“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.” (introduction; emphasis added)

Here’s what the GAO said about the specific safeguards that are in place:

“To prevent fluids from moving along these pathways and potentially contaminating underground sources of water, EPA designed several safeguards described in the Basis and Purpose report. These safeguards, shown in figure 4 and described below, are flexible and implemented by the state program directors. EPA has not reviewed class II program safeguards since the 1990s, but officials told us that, generally, the safeguards established at the UIC program’s inception remain sufficient to ensure the protection of underground sources of drinking water. In the eight states we reviewed, two states’ programs (Kentucky and Pennsylvania) are managed by their respective EPA regions and have adopted the EPA safeguards. The six remaining states we reviewed have safeguards in their programs that EPA has deemed protective of underground sources of drinking water. These states were not required to use the safeguards in EPA regulations. Rather, EPA reviewed the state programs’ safeguards to determine whether they were effective in protecting underground sources of drinking water.” (p. 24-25; emphasis added)

Fact #3: GAO suggested regulatory improvements – it did not find evidence of harm  

Here’s what the GAO concludes:

“For over 30 years, EPA and states have managed regulatory programs with safeguards that are designed to prevent contamination of underground sources of drinking water from the injection of fluids associated with oil and gas production. As domestic oil and gas production and the demand for underground injection wells continue to increase, EPA faces additional challenges maintaining sufficient oversight and enforcement of these different programs and requirements in a budget-constrained environment. States have been partners with EPA in managing their programs, yet face similar budgetary constraints. To meet its responsibilities to oversee and enforce class II program requirements, it is important that EPA ensures that state programs have information on risks to underground sources of drinking water posed by underground injection, that its oversight and enforcement are focused and efficient, and that it obtains sufficient information to monitor and report on the program nationally. We have identified several challenges that EPA faces to meet these responsibilities.” (p. 51; emphasis added)

In other words, the regulation of injection wells has occurred safely for over 30 years – longer, actually, if you look at what states did before EPA even existed. Yes, GAO suggests changes that it believes will make EPA more effective going forward, and it lays out recommendations.  But in no way does GAO suggest that Americans are at some kind of grave risk.  It’s not surprising that anti-fracking groups want to suggest otherwise, but this report simply does not validate their claims.

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