It's time for EPA to revisit 1980s rules for toxic oil and gas waste

What does Cher have in common with the oil & gas industry?

If you saw the recent MTV Video Music Awards, you know that Cher wore a tribute to her (in)famous outfit from her 1989 “If I Could Turn Back Time” music video. I am a Cher fan--and she looks amazing--but the fact is sometimes we just shouldn’t turn back time.

I am not completely against things from the 80s. My TV is from the 80s, I am still a fan of some 80s music, and Wang word processors were a helpful change from typewriters. I like a lot of old-fashioned things, like drying my clothes on a clothes line and reading my news and books printed on paper. However, I am glad to be rid of some things from the 80s, like the blouses I wore for work with big bow ties. Oh yeah, and those perms.

What does this have to do with big oil & gas? As I mentioned in a recent blog post, NRDC has petitioned the EPA to revisit a decision it made in the 1980s to exempt toxic waste from oil and gas operations from the rules governing hazardous waste. The industry, however, is opposed–-denying that times have changed and trying to hold on to that decade.

The Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) recently sent out a newsletter to its members—oil and gas companies—expressing its opposition to our petition. Among its criticisms? NRDC supports clean air and clean water, protecting public health and communities, and the use of the latest and best technology. The nerve!

The newsletter is telling. It attempts to paint a picture of the industry as a poor innocent victim of NRDC, which it calls an “anti-oil and natural gas environmental special interest group” (“pro-environment & public health public interest group” would be more accurate) out to get them. If we didn’t have enough evidence already, this just further illustrates that industry does not seem interested in protecting Americans from the potential harms associated with its operations, whether it is contaminated drinking water, polluted air, or sick people.

IPAA’s primary critique seems to be that our petition “dredges up issues settled for more than 20 years.” As we document in our petition, a lot has changed in the last 20 years--and not just my wardrobe. 

Though the rules haven’t changed, EPA agrees that times have. In 2008, the agency itself stated that “It has been 20 years since the [toxic waste] exemption for oil and gas exploration and production was implemented, and many practices and chemicals used have changed during that time.”  These improved practices can not only better protect the environment and health of neighboring communities, they can also come with cost savings—real financial savings for companies. The State of New Mexico found that drilling activity more than doubled in the year immediately following establishment of more protective rules for oil and gas waste pits.

Since EPA released its regulations for the domestic oil and natural gas industry in 1988, the number of producing gas wells nationwide has almost doubled, increasing from roughly 260,000 to 480,000 wells – and waste has increased along with the wells. In one Utah county alone the amount of produced water--one type of waste which can be full of toxic substances – increased from approximately 800,000 barrels per month in 1999 to over 1.6 million barrels per month in 2007. Along with all this new industrial activity and toxic waste, we have developed new technologies and practices to reduce and manage that waste. So just because it is an oldie does not mean it is a goodie.

No matter how hard the industry tries, it can’t turn back time. Things have changed since the 80s. The oil and gas industry’s safety regulations must change, too, to better protect people and communities. We encourage EPA to hold the industry accountable for the toxic waste it produces.