Oil and Gas Waste Disposal Regulation
The disposal of wastes from oil and gas activities are subject to federal and state regulation.
In 1980, Congress conditionally exempted oil and gas exploration and production (E&P) wastes from the hazardous waste management requirements of Subtitle C of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. This exemption was granted despite the fact that toxic substances are contained in many oil and gas industry wastes, and despite the countless examples of groundwater, surface water, air and soil contamination related to oil and gas waste disposal activities.
In 1988, the EPA published lengthy lists of wastes determined to be either exempt or non-exempt. Examples of exempt wastes include drilling fluids and cuttings, produced water and pit sludge; while non-exempt wastes include unused chemicals as well as used lubricants and hydraulic fluids.
The primary reason EPA gave for exempting E&P wastes from RCRA focused more on economic analysis than science. EPA’s economic analysis assumed two scenarios estimating the effect RCRA regulation of E&P wastes might have on total oil and gas production. EPA’s economic models assumed scenarios where RCRA Subtitle C would apply to 10% of E&P wastes and to 70% of E&P wastes.
In the intervening 25 years, advances in technology to deal with wastes like closed loop systems and increased recycling.
Lists of exempt and non-exempt wastes can be found in the EPA publication Exemption of Oil and Gas Exploration and Production Wastes from Federal Hazardous Waste Regulations. Included in this publication is the admission by EPA that:
“It is clear that some portions of both the large-volume and associated waste would have to be treated as hazardous if the Subtitle C exemption were lifted.” Register volume 53, page 25455 (1988).
There are three main federal agencies that have some jurisdication over certain aspects of oil and gas waste disposal operations.
- Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) oversees the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act; Clean Water Act; and Safe Drinking Water Act. Provisions in these acts apply to oil and gas waste disposal. Find out more about these regulations.
- Bureau of Land Management (BLM)'s regulations governing onshore oil and gas operations include requirements for oil and gas activities on federal lands to submit information on methods for containment and disposal of waste material. Find out more about BLM regulations.
- Office of Natural Resources Revenue (ONRR) is the federal agency that regulates offshore oil and gas development, including various waste disposal options. Find out more about ONRR.
The construction, operation and closure of oil and gas waste disposal operations are regulated at the state level. These regulations vary widely from state to state. For more detailed information on a state-by-state basis, visit the Argonne National Laboratory's Drilling Waste Management Information System Web Site.
For more information:
- Groundwater contamination from pits, spills and other releases in New Mexico (New Mexico Oil Conservation Division data)
- Contamination from pits, spills and other releases in Oklahoma
- Earhworks statement on the CLEANER Act