GAO wants EPA to do more on fracking wastewater

Congress’ watchdog agency faulted the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for its oversight of hydraulic fracturing wastewater injected into the ground, saying the agency doesn’t adequately work to mitigate emerging risks to drinking water.

The EPA cannot regulate the fracking process, because a 2005 law exempted from federal oversight the practice of injecting fluids into wells at a high pressure to break shale and retrieve oil and gas.

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But the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a report made public Monday that the EPA should improve its oversight of other fluid injection practices including disposing of fracking wastewater in the ground and injecting fluids in wells to enhance oil or gas recovery.

The GAO also said the EPA does not adequately consider potential seismic activity from fluid injection.

“Every day in the United States, at least 2 billion gallons of fluids are injected into over 172,000 wells to enhance oil and gas production, or to dispose of fluids brought to the surface during the extraction of oil and gas resources,” the GAO said. “Because much of the population relies on underground sources for drinking water, these wells have raised concerns about the safety of the nation’s drinking water.”

The EPA lets states regulate fluid injection if they have acceptable programs for doing so, as most do. But those states work under EPA guidance that dates from the 1980s, and has not been overhauled since then.

Federal funding for maintaining the program hasn’t increased in years, and GAO said its resources are insufficient to handle the recent exponential growth in fracking.

The EPA generally agreed with the GAO’s findings and recommendations, though Nancy Stoner, the agency’s acting assistant administrator for water, said it would not be able to fix all of the regulatory problems with its fluid injection oversight with a single rule.

“Conducting a single rulemaking of this scale to incorporate all outstanding state program changes would be impractical,” she wrote in a response attached to the GAO’s report.

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