WASHINGTON (Legal Newsline) – A coalition of environmental groups has filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S. District Court for the District of Colombia, seeking to force it to revise and publish new guidelines for the handling of oil and gas waste, in particular wastewater associated with the oil mining method known as fracking.
One industry attorney called the suit an unnecessary effort to hamper energy production methods with which the groups don't agree.
"The case is really about generating publicity and propaganda for the environmental NGO community who wants to attack at every turn responsible, domestic energy production," Michael Mills, an attorney for the firm Stoel Rives LLP, told Legal Newsline.
The coalition (consisting of the Environmental Integrity Project, Natural Resources Defense Council, Earthworks, Responsible Drilling Alliance, San Juan Citizens Alliance, West Virginia Surface Owners' Rights Organization, and the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice) has a few primary complaints.
The first concern is that wastewater produced by methods of oil and gas extraction, such as fracking, could get back into the primary water table, contaminating drinking water. Mills, however, says that the current guidelines prevent that from being a concern.
"If the operations are conducted correctly, there should be no risk of 'danger' or harm because wastewater injection does not enter drinking water supplies," Mills said. "Produced water is injected into exempt aquifers, and so there is no harm to human health or the environment. The produced water is going back to where it came from."
The groups are also concerned that injecting this water back into the ground can increase seismic stress and possibly cause an increase in earthquakes. Mills said that this determination is inconclusive at best, citing that the United States Geological Survey has only just begun studying the issue, and the increase in seismic stress currently tends to seem to be the exception, rather than the rule.
Another complaint regards the regulations that govern the disposal of this wastewater. The groups allege that, while current laws state the policies must be reviewed and updated every three years, the EPA last did so in 1988.
Mills, however, stresses that the law the groups are referring to states the policies must only be reviewed. Updating the policies is only necessary is a problem is found and needs to be fixed.
"(The) RCRA (Resource Conservation and Recovery Act) requires that the EPA review the regulations every three years, but only requires revision where necessary," Mills said. "The EPA does not have to revise (its) rules every three years."
While the groups may have serious concerns they hope are addressed, in the end Mills sees this as a frivolous lawsuit that won't go far.
"By bringing lawsuits, like this one, that have no merit in regulatory policy or scientific fact, the plaintiffs are hoping that the public will believe the allegations," he said. "Their objective by and large is simply filing the action and reaping the headlines it may bring. I don’t see this case doing more than that."