GAO: The extent of risks of shale gas development is unknown at this time, and more

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently issued two comprehensive reports:Oil and Gas: Information on Shale Resources, Development, and Environmental and Public Health Risks (GAO-12-732); and Unconventional Oil and Gas Development: Key Environmental and Public Health Requirements (GAO-12-874). They total about 300 pages but the reading is well worth it due the thorough analysis and important findings. Among the highlights:

  • The Clean Water Act requires some oil and gas production sites, close to navigable waters and shorelines, to have an oil spill prevention, control and clean-up plan. EPA officials visited 120 sites in FY 2011 and found 105 were out of compliance: 87.5%. These do not have to be oil production sites. For example, natural gas pads may have an amount of fuel for drill rigs stored on site that would trigger this requirement.
  • The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA) requires oil and gas producers to compile an annual inventory of hazardous or extremely hazardous chemicals being used or stored on site in amounts over certain thresholds. This inventory, including chemical information, must be submitted to state and local emergency planning authorities and local fire departments. Based on the thresholds, EPA told GAO that this statutory requirement could be triggered at every well site based on the amount of chemicals typically used on site including drilling mud, lubricants, and more. Does your local emergency planning authority and fire department have this for every well site in your community?
  • EPA officials do not always have information on the types of activities taking place or equipment being used at well sites, or even where the well sites are--making it difficult for their enforcement staff to know where and when to conduct inspections. EPA often does not have the resources to travel to the many well sites that it can identify. In many cases, the legal burden is on the oil and gas companies to report to EPA when they are subject to certain environmental laws. That does not seem like a recipe for success (see first bullet point).
  • Texas does not have any required setbacks from water sources.
  • Ohio does not have any pit lining requirements.
  • Colorado, Wyoming, Pennsylvania and Texas have no casing and cementing provisions specifically for horizontal wells.
  • Regarding shale development, the GAO concluded that the risks cannot be quantified and the magnitude or likelihood of potential adverse effects cannot be determined due to several factors, including insufficient scientific study.

About the Authors

Amy Mall

Senior Policy Analyst, Land & Wildlife program

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