Just The Facts: GAO Report on Underground Injection Wells

This week, the U.S. Government Accounting Office (GAO) issued a report – made at the request of several members of Congress – on the issue and use of Underground Injection Control (UIC) wells.

As way of background, according to U.S. EPA, injection wells are “a safe option for the disposal” of various wastewater byproducts, including produced and flowback (i.e., brine) water associated with shale and conventional oil and natural gas development (specifically class II). Perhaps most importantly though in this context — despite what some news media outlets wrongly suggest — the tightly-regulated use of UIC wells is not “fracking” or hydraulic fracturing, which is a well completions technology that is entirely separate and apart from UIC wells.

Moreover, shale producers in the Commonwealth pioneered large-scale water recycling and reuse technologies. In fact, nearly 90 percent of the water used in Pennsylvania’s shale development is currently being recycled and reused.

  • 90 percent of flowback water from wells is recycled” across the Marcellus Shale today. (Reuters, 7/15/13)
  • Marcellus flowback recycling reaches 90 percent” (Pittsburgh Business Times, 8/21/12)

That said, EPA-permitted UIC wells play an important role in the broader water management process. As StateImpact/NPR reports, Pennsylvania “has just seven operating oil and gas waste disposal wells.” These highly-regulated, “safe” disposal methods have not impacted groundwater resources, as this new GAO report confirms. And as the Tribune-Review reports: “No allegations of contamination or significant noncompliance violations were reported for the 1,865 class II wells here during that [research] period, according to the report.”

Here are key excerpts from GOA’s report:

  • Class II programs from the eight selected states that GAO reviewed have safeguards, such as construction requirements for injection wells, to protect against contamination of underground sources of drinking water. … Overall, EPA and state program officials reported that these safeguards are protective. (pg. 2)
  • All of the class II programs we reviewed have safeguards to prevent the contamination of underground sources of drinking water by ensuring that fluids injected into underground formations do not leak into aquifers that are used, or could be used, for drinking water. (pg. 21)

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