SAIS researchers find gaps in unconventional oil, gas regs

April 30, 2018
Differences in terminology and oversight approaches have created marked gaps in government regulation of growing unconventional oil and gas activity in the US, a research team of four graduate students at Johns Hopkins University’s School for Advanced International Studies reported on Apr. 19.

Differences in terminology and oversight approaches have created marked gaps in government regulation of growing unconventional oil and gas activity in the US, a research team of four graduate students at Johns Hopkins University’s School for Advanced International Studies reported on Apr. 19. The discrepancies potentially could cause problems for work crews and nearby communities’ water supplies, they warned.

Jake Barkin, Anna Anchutina, Natalie Kaplan, and Joniel Cha each examined separate aspects of US oil and gas development regulation and impacts on water regulation for SAIS’s International Energy and Environment Practicum. It lets students combine for-credit courses with extensive research for outside organizations—in this case, the Clean Water Action/Clean Water Fund.

Despite their wide range of topics, the SAIS team reached three conclusions concerning the US oil and gas industry and associated government regulation:

• Varying definitions related to oil and gas activity lead to ambiguous legislation and create regulatory gaps.

• Data gaps are barriers to effective regulation aimed at monitoring oil and gas activity and enforcing compliance.

• Lack of finances and qualified personnel impede regulatory oversight capacity and capabilities.

Definition discrepancies also can create problems for regulating conventional exploration and production, even when it involves characteristics in common with unconventional E&P, Barkin said. “There aren’t enough common definitions. The differences can originate in local situation, as well as approaches by government agencies and oil and gas producers,” he said.

Barkin said unconventional E&P can require large quantities of fresh water and generate large amounts of polluted produced water, which needs to be managed carefully, although a Ground Water Protection Council study found that a 27% increase in unconventional production led to only a 1% rise in produced water.

Wastewater regulation apparently is the biggest difference between federal and state oversight, he said. “Unconventional production will remain an important part of US oil and gas. In fact, it will become the primary source in the next few decades,” Barkin said.

Waste management at oil and gas sites involves not just water, but also uranium, thorium, and other substances classified as Technologically Enhanced Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (TENORM), Anchutina said. State and federal regulation is inconsistent, with lots of gaps and loopholes which need to be closed, she said.

Federal regulation itself is not consistent because it involves the 1954 Atomic Energy Act, the 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act, Anchutina said. “None of these laws address TENORM directly. This puts the regulatory burden on the states,” she said.

Although radiation can cause serious health problems, TENORM concentrations in oil and gas wastes are usually very low, Anchutina said. Of five states she examined—Texas, Colorado, North Dakota, Ohio, and Pennsylvania—only Texas has a substantial TENORM regime with 15 provisions covering its presence in oil and gas wastes. She said it will be necessary to close regulatory gaps, developed common TENORM definitions, and improve oversight to minimize and prevent risks of radioactive exposure to workers, public health, and the environment.

Open disposal pits

Kaplan’s research concentrated on open waste disposal pits in Texas, where 3.5 million b/d of crude production in 2017 produced vast amounts of wastewater. She specifically looked at 43 commercially operated facilities, which can be regulated either by law or by permit.

“These pits are ubiquitous, and if you live near one, it can be hard to find how it’s being regulated,” Kaplan said. “There also are a fair amount of legacy pits leftover from production more than 50 years ago. These obviously weren’t regulated as heavily as newer ones are—and, in some case, they weren’t regulated at all.”

She recommended that the Texas Railroad Commission make data transparent and place all available information for all pit categories online. The state agency also should mandate that best industry practices be used in constructing new pits; require that every pit have real-time leak monitoring and regular inspections; use standardized pit names in permits; require that air quality around open pits be monitored and mitigated; and prohibit evaporation ponds, Kaplan said.

Cha concentrated on hydraulic fracturing impacts in Colorado, which he said faces a fork in the road after September 2013, six oil and gas disasters in the 2009-17 period, growing protests against oil and gas activity, and lawsuits alleging public health and environmental harm from such operations. Meanwhile, he noted, oil and gas activity in the state has increased in seven basins, particularly in Weld and Garfield Counties, where there are 23,000 and 11,000 active wells, respectively.

“While Colorado seems to have its act together, many state legislators have proposed tougher regulations, including one that covers TENORM,” Cha said. “Oil and gas production has climbed, but public complaints have grown. Many recommendations from [Democratic] Gov. [John J.] Hickenlooper’s task force have not been adopted. The Colorado Oil and Gas Control Commission is investigating 23 contaminated water complaints.”

He recommended that Colorado impose a water usage fee and provide a compensation mechanism, use funds to finance research and development, impose stricter permit issuance standards, and hire more employees to enhance due diligence. Cha also would like to see the US Environmental Protection Agency provide more resources to help governments in producing states regulate oil and gas more effectively.