A three-year study by the award-winning, investigative on-line journal ProPublica indicates that strict comprehensive regulations of oil and gas drilling and, in particular, of hydraulic fracturing would not be enough to protect the drinking water, the health, and the public and private property of many Americans. The main reason is that the powerful oil and natural gas industry resists regulations by egregiously eroding them through the influence of well-paid lobbyists on state and federal politicians and agencies.
A significant case in point involves Class 2 injection wells, which the industry in order to save money and increase its profits has been using for many decades to dispose of toxic fluid wastes. According to ProPublica, “There are now more than 150,000 Class 2 wells in 33 states, into which oil and gas drillers have injected at least 10 trillion gallons of fluid.” The journal examined records summarizing tens of thousands of Class 2 well inspections. ProPublica examined also “federal audits of state oversight programs, interviewed dozens of experts and explored court documents, case files, and the evolution of underground disposal law over the past 30 years.”
The journal’s study “shows that … fundamental safeguards are sometimes being ignored or circumvented. State and federal regulators often do little to confirm what pollutants go into wells for drilling waste. They rely heavily on an honor system in which companies are supposed to report what they are pumping into the earth, whether their wells are structurally sound, and whether they have violated any rules.” During the three-year period analyzed, more than a 1000 times well-operators pumped wastes at levels of pressure they knew could fracture rock and lead to the migration of the fluids. The records show that in many cases operators cheated on tests intended to make sure wells are not leaking. Operators also neglected requirements to find old or abandoned wells that can function, and have functioned, as conduits for the fluids to contaminate the water table.
As a result of the industry’s influence on politicians and government agencies, the toxic contents of its wastes (benzene, toluene, various acids, halogenated hydrocarbons, and biocides, etc.) were in 1980 declared “non-hazardous.” In the same year the EPA was allowed to permit state oil and gas regulators to oversee Class 2 injection wells even if state rules varied from federal regulations and the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). As a result of such official decisions, “the largest waste stream headed for underground injection, that from the oil and gas industry, was exempted from one of the most effective parts of environmental rules [the SWDA] governing hazardous waste disposal.“
Adding to this problem is the fact that inspection of injection wells is inadequate. As ProPublica points out, “The EPA employs just six people to check … wells across the Southeast” and in 2010, for example, “state regulators visited less than half of the Class 2 sites that a federal well inventory shows they were responsible for monitoring.” When the industry violates regulations, the result is usually a slap on the hand, ranging from a citation, informal warning, or temporary well shut-down to a modest fine. For example, in 2011 “the state [of Louisiana] collected an average of $158 for each violation.”
What ProPublica’s study strongly suggests is that stringent regulations of oil and natural gas mining and, in particular, of fracking are only the beginning of a program of protection for potable water, public health, and people’s property values. But, because the industry will continually work to erode such regulations and because it has the deep pockets to do so, only constant vigilance and the elimination of big money from politics will insure such protection. As a result of citizen apathy and the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous Citizen’s United decision, which defines corporations as persons and corporate money as a form of free speech, the alternative courses of action are not only to unseat the legislators who recently passed a bill legalizing fracking and shale-gas mining in NC but also to repeal that bill. In the meantime, resistance through the law and education of the public is a civic duty.