Letting Oil and Gas Companies Run Amuck: Lack of Enforcement Rather than Lack of Regulation


The New York Times natural gas series by Ian Urbina continues to illustrate the lack of government oversight in the “energy extraction” industry, but I take some issue with the implication that there are no laws against the dangerous and irresponsible practices oil and gas companies employ. There’s a difference between lack of regulation and lack of enforcement.

In the second jaw-dropping installment, Mr. Urbina offers a great example of what’s actually happening, detailing an EPA decision NOT to classify drilling waste as hazardous material – despite the fact that it’s radioactive. Losing the exemption would mean that drillers would be treated like other industries, and have to pay for appropriate testing and handling.

If drillers were to lose the exemption from federal law that allowed their waste not to be considered hazardous, they would probably be forced – at great expense – to begin more rigorously testing their waste for toxicity.

As with the BP spill, we find regulators and industry working together to put profits before people and the environment.

One of the shocking revelations in Urbina’s piece is that some drilling companies are actually “disposing” of their radioactive wastewater by selling it to localities:

Some well operators are also selling their waste rather than paying to dispose of it. Because it is so salty, they have found ready buyers in communities that spread it on roads for de-icing in the winter and for dust suppression in the summer. When ice melts or rain falls, the waste can run off roads and end up in the drinking supply.

As for the quantities of radioactive sludge produced, the NYT says drillers “…might also have to do what most other industries do: ship any radioactive sludge or salts that is high in radioactivity to Idaho or Washington, where there are some of the only landfills in the country permitted to accept such waste.”

And you have to love this part: “State regulators declined to comment on the exchange because it concerns a federal, not state, exemption. Federal officials said the salts were regulated by the states.”

In the wake of this series and other high-profile reporting, like that being done at the ProPublica non-profit journalism website and the “GasLand” documentary, there’s bound to be an outcry to enact more regulations and new laws. But that is a secondary issue – these activities already break all kinds of laws, starting with provisions of the Clean Water Act.

I’ve tried these issues before juries, and have proven time and again that the laws are simply ignored. There’s no enforcement. If you want to have any real regulation of these dangerous industries, you have to start with the regulators – having more laws to ignore is not going to make us any safer.

The mind-boggling NYT story is here: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/02/us/02gas.html?_r=1&hp

For more information on “fracking” and related radiation issues, see our new Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Hydraulic-Fracturing-Support-Group/192748310749814?sk=info

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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