Texas failed to get federal approval to inject oil and gas drilling waste into groundwater by Jeff Mosier, 26 August 2016, The Dallas Morning News
The Texas Railroad Commission has let the petroleum industry inject oil and gas waste into groundwater for decades without the required federal approval, a national environmental group says.
Officials with Clean Water Action said the failure of oversight on the part of the state and federal governments may have contaminated future drinking water sources. No evidence of contamination has been found, but little documentation is available to prove or disprove negative effects. [And if regulators and companies know how not to look, and do so often, and know how to avoid detection of contamination, and do so often, how will the contamination be found and fix? Is it even possible to fix, if they gave a damn? Encana’s not tried in 12 years to fix Rosebud’s contaminated aquifers, and regulators only blame and attack the citizens harmed with dangerous explosive drinking water in their homes]
Texas officials agreed in 1982 to request “aquifer exemptions” from the EPA for certain wastewater injection wells. But the Railroad Commission said there were no such documents when environmentalists requested them. The EPA records show no exemptions were requested.
“It was to protect current as well as future sources of drinking water,” David Foster, Texas director of Clean Water Action, said of the 1982 deal. “Texas never kept up that end of its bargain.”
Foster said his group has been asking about aquifer exemptions for a couple of years. Texas had 54,332 of these wastewater wells in 2014.
Railroad Commission officials have told the EPA they think there were fewer than 10 exemptions that should have gone to the federal government for approval.
“The Railroad Commission effectively prioritized the concerns of the oil and gas industry over the long-term drinking water needs of Texas residents,” the Clean Water Action report said.
In emails responding to the report’s findings, Railroad Commission spokeswoman Ramona Nye wrote that the agency’s “highest priority is protecting the public and the state’s natural resources by continuing to ensure we have strong rules, permitting procedures and enforcement processes in place to protect the state’s drinking water.” [Puff pastry words. Having those processes and procedures in place means nothing, if the regulator allows rules to be violated, violates those rules itself, and deregulates whenever possible]
“This program protects drinking water and in fact, the EPA’s Fiscal Year 2015 End-of-Year Evaluation of the Commission’s UIC program recognizes the Commission’s ‘outstanding enforcement monitoring program’ for Class II injection wells,” she wrote.
Nye did not address reporting or approval failures.
The EPA did not appear to notice the oversights for decades [that’s some grand national regulator!] but has been concerned about reporting problems since at least 2009, according to one of its letters to the Railroad Commission. The effort to “determine the historical outcome of this agreement” was mentioned prominently in an EPA year-end report sent to the commission this month.
“RRC reported the [record-keeping] effort is very resource intensive and staff continue to gather information in their records,” according to that report. “EPA recommends continued high prioritization of this effort.”
The Railroad Commission wasn’t able to find all its documentation or determine which wells needed federal approval.
The federal Government Accountability Office released a report in February criticizing the EPA for its handling of the aquifer exemption program. The GAO study found examples of slow reactions to violations and that the EPA didn’t receive enough detailed data from the states to judge the exemption program’s effectiveness.
The report concluded, “EPA has not consistently conducted oversight activities necessary to assess whether state and EPA-managed programs are protecting underground sources of drinking water.”
These wells have been under a high level of scrutiny because of their possible connection to earthquakes. University research has linked the increase in local earthquakes to the injection wells. The EPA recently said agency officials think those wells are responsible for seismic activity that is unprecedented for this region.
Railroad Commission officials have said they don’t think the research is conclusive. Oklahoma oil and gas regulations have required drillers to reduce the volume of wastewater injected into the wells to counteract that state’s increased number of earthquakes.
The aquifer exemptions essentially allow the government to remove an aquifer or area of groundwater from protection under the Safe Drinking Water Act, according to the EPA. To do that, the agency has to determine the aquifer isn’t used for drinking water and “cannot now, or will not in the future, serve as a source of drinking water.” [Encana frac’d drinking water aquifers used by an entire community, with regulators engaging in fraud, repeatedly, to help the company cover-up the illegal acts and subsequent contamination. If companies and regulators don’t give a damn about drinking water aquifers in use by people, why would they care about aquifers that might be used in the future?]
EPA officials said they are still reviewing how the permitting was handled over the last few decades. But federal regulators think the Railroad Commission had sufficient procedures in place to keep from polluting groundwater.
“EPA does not believe these operations will pollute any water wells in the area based on the permit restrictions,” wrote David Gray, a spokesman for the agency’s Region 6 office in Dallas.
He said the EPA’s preliminary research found that “very few oil fields” are found in formations with water suitable for drinking. The 1982 agreement requires EPA approval of injection wells only in new oil and gas fields, and in cases in which the water could be usable. Water sources in existing oil and gas fields were exempted.
The EPA is providing the Railroad Commission with a $39,000 grant to hire a geologist to look back at injection wells approved since the early 1980s and match them to potential waters sources. [Like in Alberta, paying and allowing the law breakers to study their own illegal acts]
There were similar problems with this permitting process in California. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that more than 170 waste disposal well were drilling in aquifers now used for drinking or irrigation. This came as California has been suffering through a severe drought.
The EPA determined California’s inspection program was out of compliance with state and federal regulations.
There is criticism of allowing the aquifer exemptions, even in formations where the water isn’t used.
… Foster announced the Clean Water Action findings Monday evening during testimony at a Sunset Commission hearing for the Railroad Commission.
The Sunset process seeks to determine whether a state agency is still required or whether changes are needed. At the Railroad Commission hearing, the agency was mostly praised by industry representatives and criticized by environmentalists.
Sunset staff proposed major changes to the Railroad Commission, from a name change to moving hearings to another agency. Sunset Commission members were generally supportive of the Railroad Commission and its work. [Emphasis added]
Texas Promised 34 Years Ago to Track Oilfield Waste in Aquifers. It Didn’t.
by Jim Malewitz Aug. 24, 2016, The Texas Tribune
Have oil and gas companies injected toxic materials into Texas groundwater sources?
State regulators don’t know, even though they agreed in 1982 to track injections into zones that could hold underground sources of drinking water, according to records obtained by The Texas Tribune.
Only now are Texas officials combing through thousands of permits issued since then in an effort to account for these injections — a revelation that has stirred concerns among environmentalists and groundwater managers.
The Railroad Commission, the state’s oil and gas regulator, acknowledges in a letter that it permitted injections into at least a “handful” of zones fitting the broad legal definition of drinking water sources, but it does not know how many times that has happened over the past decades. Federal regulators have no record of approving exemptions for these injections, and in a report issued this month they instructed the Railroad Commission to prioritize gathering the data.
Both the EPA and Railroad Commission call the injections they know of low-risk, and they say they have no evidence pointing to fouled water supplies.
But environmental watchdogs say revelations — found in agency emails, letters, reports and other documents — show disorganization at the Railroad Commission, raising questions about its ability to protect groundwater from pollution inside thousands of disposal and injection wells dotting Texas oilfields.
“The Railroad Commission has no information,” said David Foster, Texas director of Clean Water Action, an environmental advocacy group headquartered in Washington, D.C. “It’s a black hole.”
Bureaucrats call these sites Class II injection wells. Plunging deep underground, they hold often-hazardous industrial byproducts. The Railroad Commission has permitted more than 56,000 of these wells, which take various forms: Some hold liquid leftovers from petroleum drilling and fracking (disposal wells), while others involve naturally toxic fluids — drawn from the ground — that enhance oil production (broadly called injection wells).
No other state has more Class II wells than Texas, home to a third of those in the country.
Texas groundwater districts and landowners have closely scrutinized these wells, whose numbers surged amid a years long oil boom that stalled in late 2014. Their concerns are particularly acute in drought-prone regions eyeing brackish groundwater — not clean enough to tap now — that desalination technology could one day make usable.
“One of these days, we’re going to need that water,” said Hugh Fitzsimons, a bison rancher and member of the Wintergarden Groundwater Conservation District in South Texas. His district has been eyeing the Glen Rose aquifer, trying to figure out where its usable water begins and ends.
Wintergarden has protested several applications to inject oilfield waste into the Glen Rose, but its experts sometimes encounter problems: a lack of records at the commission. “They don’t know. They just flat-out don’t know,” Fitzsimons said.
The records void surfaces at an awkward time for the Railroad Commission. It faces scrutiny from the Sunset Advisory Commission, a legislative body that periodically studies the effectiveness of state agencies. Among the reviewers’ findings: The Railroad Commission “continues to struggle to provide reliable data to show the effectiveness of its efforts.”
For its part, the hulking agency says its “highest priority is protecting the public and the state’s natural resources.” Spokesman Rich Parsons told the Tribune the agency does this “by continuing to ensure we have strong rules, permitting procedures and enforcement processes in place to protect the state’s drinking water.” He pointed to recent EPA praise for other parts of its disposal well program and said “the whole process is designed to protect our groundwater resources.”
Defining drinking water
Federal law defines underground drinking water broadly: sources containing fewer than 10,000 milligrams per liter of “Total Dissolved Solids.” Water with more than 500 TDS is typically considered unfit for human consumption. The broader threshold is meant to include waters that could be used after intense treatment. The U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act affords these aquifers protections. It bars direct injections into them and adds requirements for wells drilled through them.
Not all qualifying drinking water aquifers are protected. Some may be exempt if they are not “reasonably expected to supply a public water system.” That could mean their waters are too deep or polluted.
When the EPA delegated injection well authority to the Railroad Commission in 1982, the agencies agreed on criteria for aquifer exemptions.
The agreement automatically exempted zones industry had already tapped, unless residents were drawing water from them. The Commission agreed to give the EPA a map of these exempt areas and seek EPA approval before expanding those zones or adding new fields.
But the Texas agency cannot produce such a map, or records on individual exemptions.
Foster discovered this after asking for a slew of records, and received this email from a staffer:
“The Railroad Commission does not have any information responsive to your December 9, 2015, request for information.”
The commission acknowledges it has allowed injection into zones that could qualify for drinking water protections. But it has not tallied these instances, nor has it specified where the aquifers lie.
The Commission this year received federal funds to hire a geologist to scour state records for examples of such injections.
A 2015 letter from William Honker, a regional water quality director for the EPA, summarizes a conversation suggesting the Railroad Commission had permitted injections into “very few” drinking water aquifers in Texas — fewer than 10.
In a report issued this month, the EPA told Texas officials it “recommends continued high prioritization” of the effort to account for those injections. It applauded the commission’s monitoring and enforcement of injection wells at large, but criticized other areas — such as the agency’s public stance on earthquake risks.
The EPA is downplaying public health concerns related to aquifer exemptions, as is the Railroad Commission.
The U.S. agency “does not believe these operations will pollute any water wells in the area based on the permit restrictions,” regional spokesman David Gray told the Tribune.
Long a little-known part of injection well programs, aquifer exemptions have gained some attention in recent years, particularly as watchdogs discover that state and federal regulators are poorly tracking them.
In 2012, ProPublica reported that federal regulators had issued more than 1,500 exemptions on parts of at least 100 drinking water aquifers nationwide. Though many exemptions covered areas with low-quality water that may never be used, some circumvented protections for waters that would need minimal filtration to become drinkable, the news site reported.
More recently, California discovered it had allowed thousands of injections into nonexempt aquifers.
“Californians expect their water is not being polluted by oil producers,” a regional administrator for the EPA told the Associated Press last year. “This poses that very real danger.”
In July of 2015, California regulators said they were closely examining risks from 24 of those wells.
This year, U.S. Government Accountability Office report blamed poor record keeping at the EPA for some of the confusion.
“The agency is missing information on exemption decisions made when state programs were granted primacy in the 1980s because the supporting documentation is not readily accessible or was damaged while in storage,” the report said.
Despite the attention, the exemption program remains far from common knowledge in Texas.
“Now why in the hell would they do that?” Ty Edwards, assistant general manager for the Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District, said when a reporter described the exemption program to him.
Apparently, some Railroad Commission officials were unfamiliar with exemptions until recently.
Now, the commission is hiring a geologist to inventory all injections into drinking water zones, a task that involves combing through roughly 10,000 permits issued since 1982, according the state’s grant application.
Downplaying health concerns
Despite the lack of information, regulators are downplaying any concerns about drinking water pollution. [All over the world?]
That’s in part, they say, because few oilfields in Texas and its neighboring states operate in drinking water zones compared to other states. It’s why the EPA didn’t scrutinize the Railroad Commission’s scant record-keeping sooner, Gray said.
“EPA therefore devoted its oversight resources to areas of the program that posed more of a risk to human health and the environment.”
Additionally, both agencies highlight extra controls for some injection wells — those used for bolster production rather than disposing of fracking waste — meant to ensure that operators don’t inject any more water naturally contaminated water than comes out during production. This would keep pressures low and limit the spread of contaminants.
The Railroad Commission says it examines each well individually to determine where any nearby drinking water might lie.
Critics say those assurances fall short, at least until the agencies compile more data on injections and analyze which aquifers could yield future water supplies.
“The burden should be on the operators to prove that they are not harming resources that shouldn’t be harmed,” said John Noel, who oversees oil and gas issues for Clean Water Action. [Emphasis added]
IMPERILED AQUIFERS Report: Texas flouted federal aquifer rules for 34 years by Associated Press, August 26, 2016, Temple Daily Telegram
AUSTIN — Texas allowed the drilling of oil and natural gas injection wells in some areas near drinking water sources starting more than three decades ago, but state regulators recently assured the federal government the effort posed “little to no risk” to the subterranean reserves, according to a report released Friday.
Clean Water Action, an environmental advocacy group, contends in its report that the nation’s top oil-producing state doesn’t really know how many injection wells are affecting drinking water or the full impact. That’s because the state still hasn’t properly implemented federal aquifer safeguards, 34 years after telling the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that it would do so, the group said.
“We actually don’t know the full extent of the problem,” said John Noel, primary author of the report. “They’ve permitted tens of thousands of injection wells without following federal guidelines.” [Intentionally perhaps, to enable the oil and gas industry’s raping of aquifers to enhance profits?]
Injection wells take various forms and are used for production and waste disposal in oilfields. In addition to exploratory drilling, oil producing operations can produce large amounts of briny fluid and other waste, and oilfield operators often dispose of the waste by injecting it back underground.
In 1982, the EPA and Texas’ Railroad Commission, which oversees oil and gas production, agreed that many existing injection wells would be exempted from federal rules designed to protect underground sources of drinking water.
Excerpts of letters from 1982 released Friday as part of the report show that the commission said it would provide federal officials with a map of existing exempt areas already being used by oil producers and pledged to secure EPA approval before sanctioning new exempted areas or allowing existing ones to get larger.
Noel’s report says Texas never produced such a map and that the Railroad Commission doesn’t have a full record of the exemptions granted. The commission now says it is in the process of producing a more complete inventory.
The report references a letter the Railroad Commission wrote to the EPA in March in which the Texas agency said that since 1982, it had issued permits for injection wells in “a handful of fields” that could affect underground water reserves.
“These injection wells pose little or no risk to underground sources of drinking water because of the characteristics of the reservoir, completion of wells in the area and the conditions included in the injection well permits,” that letter states. “This example illustrates that the commission has an effective program that ensures projection of underground sources of drinking water.”
Railroad Commission spokeswoman Ramona Nye said Friday that the agency “remains in compliance” with the 1982 EPA agreement. She said the commission will use grant funding to verify that permits issued since “do not authorize injection into underground sources of drinking water in zones that were not approved by the EPA.”
“The commission’s highest priority is protecting the public and the state’s natural resources by continuing to ensure we have strong rules, permitting procedures and enforcement processes in place to protect the state’s drinking water,” Nye said in an emailed statement.
But Noel’s report says the problem is potentially far more serious given the number of injection wells approved since 1982. The commission says Texas has more than 54,700 permitted oil and gas injection and disposal wells, with approximately 34,200 active as of July 2015.
The report concludes that Texas “routinely prioritized the concerns of the oil and gas industry over the long term drinking water needs of Texas residents.”
Texas has more injection wells than any other state, but similar issues have surfaced elsewhere. An Associated Press analysis in 2015 cited more than 2,000 permits California had given oil companies to inject into federally protected drinking water reserves.
Noel called the Texas findings “the early stages of what happened in California.”
[Refer also to:
2016 07 27: California: Another new study proving oil and gas companies are fracing freshwater formations: “As many as one of every five oil and gas projects occurs in underground sources of fresh water”
2015 03 15: California now says 2,500 wells dumping frac waste into protected aquifers, up from 532 in February. Regulators order oil drillers including Chevron Corp. and Linn Energy LLC to halt operations at 12 injection wells (two were issued cease and desist orders) because they may taint groundwater suitable for drinking and irrigation
2014 08 28: Federally commissioned report, California Council on Science and Technology: Fracking is at shallower depths than previously realized, “It turns out that they’re fracking right around the water table”