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Hazardous Waste

Management of Oil and Gas Exploration and Production Waste

Wastes generated from crude oil and natural gas exploration and production are generally subject to regulation under Subtitle D of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and state regulations, and many state governments have specific regulations and guidance for exploration and production wastes. In addition, some states are developing legislation and regulations in response to the increase in the use of hydraulic fracturing, including requirements related to waste management.

As the use of hydraulic fracturing has increased, so too have concerns about potential impacts on public health and the environment, including potential impacts arising from improper management of wastes from exploration and production activities. Proper waste management is important for all exploration and production wastes, including those that are associated with hydraulic fracturing activities.

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Management of Oil and Gas Wastes – 2019 Review

Section 2002(b) of RCRA requires every regulation promulgated under the Act to be reviewed and, where necessary, revised not less frequently than every three years. On May 4, 2016, the Environmental Integrity Project and others filed a lawsuit with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia that alleged EPA had failed to perform its non-discretionary duty under Section 2002(b) to evaluate the federal Subtitle D solid waste regulatory requirements for the management of wastes associated with exploration, development and production wastes from crude oil, natural gas and geothermal energy (oil and gas) activities.

In response, EPA entered into a consent decree to conduct a review and determine whether revisions to the federal solid waste management regulations are necessary. To support this effort, EPA conducted an extensive literature review of government, industry and academic sources to supplement the information available from previous Agency actions. This review, to determine whether changes to the federal solid waste regulations are necessary, evaluated factors such as waste characteristics, management practices, damage cases and the coverage of state programs.

Based on the information gathered for this review, EPA concludes that revisions to the federal regulations for the management of exploration, development and production wastes of crude oil, natural gas and geothermal energy under Subtitle D of RCRA (title 40 of the Code of Federal Regulations in Part 257) are not necessary at this time. Additional information comprising EPA’s review and decision is contained in the document entitled, Management of Oil and Gas Exploration, Development and Production Wastes: Factors Informing a Decision on the Need for Regulatory Action. EPA will continue to work with states and other organizations to identify areas for continued improvement and to address emerging issues to ensure that exploration, development and production wastes continue to be managed in a manner that is protective of human health and the environment. Learn more about EPA's collaboration with the State Review of Oil and Natural Gas Environmental Regulations.

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Wastes Associated with Hydraulic Fracturing

Natural gas plays a key role in our nation's clean energy future. The United States has vast reserves of natural gas that are commercially viable as a result of advances in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing technologies enabling greater access to gas in shale formations. Responsible development of America's shale gas resources offers important economic, energy security, and environmental benefits.

Oil and gas exploration and production well installation operations typically comprise three stages:

  1. Well Drilling and Completion Stage
    Wastes Produced:
    • Drilling Fluids (drilling muds)
    • Cuttings
    • Produced Water
  2. Well Stimulation Stage (hydraulic fracturing)
    Wastes Produced:
    • Fracturing Fluid Returns
    • Produced Water
  3. Well Production Stage
    Wastes Produced:
    • Produced Water

During hydraulic fracturing specially engineered fluids containing chemical additives and proppant (eg., sand) are pumped under high pressure into a well to create and hold open fractures within the geologic formation. Hydraulic fracturing is often performed in stages, and following each stage, some fluids return to the surface as fracturing fluid returns ('flowback').

It is important to note that the use of horizontal drilling in conjunction with hydraulic fracturing can often result in large volumes of flowback, a key attribute distinguishing wastes generated during hydraulic fracturing in unconventional reservoirs from wastes generated during other types of exploration and production activities. For example, larger volumes of flowback require larger on-site storage capacity, either using land-based units (pits) or tanks.

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State Regulations for Management of Wastes from Oil and Gas and Exploration and Production Activities

While many exploration and production wastes are exempt from regulation as hazardous waste under Subtitle C of RCRA, these wastes are generally subject to non-hazardous waste regulation under RCRA Subtitle D and applicable state regulations. Many state governments have specific regulations and guidance for exploration and production wastes.

Over the last several years, many states have been developing and updating legislation and regulations in light of the increase in the use of hydraulic fracturing, including requirements related to waste management. Exploration and production activity occurring on federal lands is regulated under the jurisdiction of the Department of Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM), subject to BLM regulations and guidance. EPA strongly believes that the management of exploration and production wastes should occur in a manner that prevents releases of hazardous constituents to the environment, particularly releases that may impact groundwater and surface water resources.

EPA reviewed the waste-related provisions of state regulations as of March 2014, for oil and natural gas waste pits and storage tanks for 26 of 33 gas producing states (ie., states with the most significant shale gas activity). The review examined only the state statutes and regulations and did not include a review of permitting decisions, compliance monitoring, or enforcement actions. EPA consulted the following sources:

  • State Regulations and Statutes
  • State Review of Oil and Natural Gas Environmental Regulations (STRONGER) Board state reviews
  • 2009 Department of Energy (DOE) Report: State Regulations Designed to Protect Water Resources

In addition, EPA staff contacted each of the 26 reviewed states' primary regulatory agencies to verify cited regulations and ensure recent and ongoing updates to regulations were reflected in the review.

  • Summary:
  • All 26 reviewed states have oil and gas regulations.
  • State regulations vary greatly in scope and detail.
  • Regulatory programs can include regulatory parameters such as liner requirements, clear definitions of waste fluids and characterization requirements, operational controls, maintenance, closure, and financial assurance requirements.
  • Several areas do not appear to have specific requirements; for example, groundwater monitoring, air monitoring, or post closure monitoring.
  • Numerous states have recently updated regulations to include disclosure requirements for the chemicals used in the practice of hydraulic fracturing.

State regulations continue to evolve as hydraulic fracturing issues become more prevalent and additional information becomes available. Below are individual state summaries and a link to a resource for state regulatory programs.

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Voluntary Management Practices for Oil and Gas Exploration and Production Wastes

In concert with the application of state regulatory requirements, there are a variety of voluntary management practice guidance (often referred to in industry as "Best Management Practices," or "BMPs") for operators to evaluate and use in the development of site-specific exploration and production waste management plans.

EPA strongly urges operators to evaluate and, as appropriate, employ practices best suited to prevent releases during the generation and management of exploration and production wastes including wastes from hydraulic fracturing. EPA agrees with the statement from the Bureau of Land Management that voluntary management guidance for oil and gas exploration and production wastes should be matched and adapted to meet the site-specific requirements of the project and local environment. Operators should also integrate source reduction and recycling measures into their operations, where practicable.

EPA conducted a literature review/internet search and developed a list of more than 80 publicly available sources of voluntary management practices for oil and gas exploration and production wastes as they relate to pits, tanks, and land application/disposal. From this list, EPA focused on fourteen key documents/websites that are widely used and developed summaries of the pit, tank, and land application-related management practices contained in the fourteen selected sources.

There is much existing guidance developed and being used by industry, federal, state, and non-governmental organizations. The scope ranges from local to state, regional, national, and international. The guidance documents/websites compiled in this review are readily available to the public. In addition, there are ongoing efforts by the various stakeholder groups to continuously develop additional guidance and improve existing ones.

The report contains six sections:

  1. introduction
  2. methodology
  3. list of publicly available sources of voluntary management practices for oil and gas exploration and production wastes as they relate to pits, tanks, and land application/disposal
  4. list of selected guidance documents/websites for further analysis
  5. summaries of the relevant practices in the selected guidance
  6. our findings

The summaries in Section five contain the following information for each document: sponsoring organization, document/website title, date of publication, website location, general description, and excerpts of the specific sections that concern pits, tanks, and/or land application.

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