How do we regulate this waste and disposal?

With over 1.1 million active oil and gas wells in the United States, the amount of waste being produced from fracking in these wells is hard to imagine. Roughly 280 billion gallons of wastewater were produced nationwide from fracking wells in the year 2012, according to a report by Environment America, a national environmental advocacy organization (Ridlington & Rumpler 2013). This 280 billion gallons of wastewater per year is comparable to about 76 million gallons per day, or in simpler terms, roughly 40,000 backyard swimming pools filled with fracking wastewater every single day. If we consider that fracking wells are increasing across the country every year and still producing wastewater at this rate, there is an alarming amount of harmful waste being produced daily with almost no regulation.

Regulation of flowback fluid from fracking falls under the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974. The SDWA protects all water sources in the U.S. by holding them up to certain minimum standards for what is considered “safe” to drink. When the Act was initially created, it stated that “State programs must require a permit for any underground injection, mandated inspection, monitoring, record keeping, and reporting” if the injection endangers drinking water sources (SDWA). Under these initial conditions, fracking wastewater was exempt from regulation due to the EPA’s definition of underground injection sites. In 1997, though, that definition was overruled and the U.S. Court of Appeals determined fracking to be a form of underground injection (Brady 2012). Under this new ruling, all state programs and the EPA itself had to regulate fracking waste and the disposal of flowback fluid. As expected, there was a considerable amount of opposition to this ruling by the energy companies and the EPA was required to do their own study on the dangers of contamination to water sources. The EPA released this study in 2004 and determined that hydraulic fracturing brings almost no danger to drinking sources and therefore the SDWA was amended a year later (U.S. EPA 2004).

The SDWA was reexamined and passed with the caveat that underground injection for fracking purposes would be exempt unless diesel fuels were involved in the process (U.S. HOR 2011). This exemption, passed in 2005 under the Energy Policy Act is often called the “Halliburton Loophole” due to Vice President Dick Cheney’s involvement as a past CEO of Halliburton; a multinational energy company. The Halliburton loophole is what currently allows billions of gallons of fracking wastewater to go unregulated every year. Fortunately, since the loophole appeared, revisions have been considered and in 2011, the EPA began developing new standards for wastewater from natural gas extraction (Brady 2012). Currently, regulation of fracking wastewater remains in the hands of each state’s environmental protection department, which allows for much variation across the nation. Due to the lack of federal regulation on fracking wastewater, the existing options for disposal are limited and often questionable in practice.