On May 4, 2016, a coalition of environmental organizations (“Plaintiffs”) filed suit against the U.S. Environmental Protection (“EPA”) in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to compel the EPA to promulgate revised regulations and guidelines for the disposal, storage, transportation, and handling of oil and gas wastes.  Environmental Integrity Project et al. v. Gina McCarthy (Case No. 1:16-cv-00842).  In the Complaint, Plaintiffs state that the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (“RCRA”) requires the EPA to review and revise regulations for drilling wastes every three years.  42 U.S.C. § 6912(b).  According to Plaintiffs, the EPA last conducted a review of the regulations in 1988, but has since failed to update the regulations.  Further, the EPA has not updated the guidelines for state solid waste management plans as required under RCRA.

The environmental organizations are the Environmental Integrity Project, Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthworks, Responsible Drilling Alliance, San Juan Citizens Alliance, West Virginia Surface Owners’ Rights Organization, and the Center for Health, Environment and Justice.

Anti-oil advocates, including Plaintiffs, have recently targeted the regulation of oil and gas production wastes, including recovered drilling fluids, flowback fluid, and produced water.  Plaintiffs claim that this waste water will enter drinking water and cause harm to human health and the environment.  However, in March 2015, the California EPA publicly confirmed that there has been no drinking water contamination due to oil and gas disposal well injection.  Further, treated produced water has long been used to irrigate agricultural crops, especially in times of ongoing drought.

In addition, Plaintiffs state that disposal of waste fluids by underground injection wells is linked to earthquake activity. “One impact of this increased use of injection wells is the occurrence of earthquakes due to ‘induced seismicity.’”  Complaint, at 15.  The United States Geological Survey (“USGS”) is conducting an extensive study on this issue, but there is currently little conclusive data on earthquakes and underground injection.

While the EPA has warned of the potential for contamination from oil and gas extraction techniques such as fracking, the agency has found no evidence of widespread damage to drinking water supplies.  Stricter regulations, as urged by Plaintiffs, could improve the transparency of oil and gas activities, and continue to ensure safe handling and disposal of wastes.  However, industry expects any new regulations to be tailored to the actual needs they are attempting to address.  Therefore, if there is no evidence of harm, contamination or other negative impacts from current oilfield practices, any new regulations should pose a minimal burden on oilfield operators.  We will continue to monitor the litigation for our readers.