EPA to Review Texas’ Oil and Gas Injection Well ProgramPress Release

Risks to drinking water cited by Commission Shift as reason to revoke Texas’ permitting authority

Laredo, TX – Commission Shift is pleased to announce that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has responded to our petition, committing to a thorough review of the Railroad Commission of Texas’ (RRC’s) implementation of their Class II Underground Injection Control (UIC) program. The EPA’s UIC program is intended to protect underground sources of drinking water. This critical step marks a milestone in our ongoing efforts to ensure the protection of Texas’ water resources and the health and safety of our communities.

The petition, submitted March 1, 2024 by Earthjustice on behalf of Commission Shift and Clean Water Action, and signed by nine other Texas-based organizations and individuals, raised serious concerns about oversight practices at the RRC and potential risks associated with Class II injection wells, which are used for the disposal of wastewater from oil and gas production or carbon dioxide (CO2) injection for enhanced oil recovery (EOR). These wells, if not properly managed, pose a threat to underground sources of drinking water and can contribute to seismic activity, sinkholes, and leaks or blowouts from unplugged wells. The petition urged the EPA to evaluate whether the RRC is adhering to federal standards under the Safe Drinking Water Act, and to take necessary actions to safeguard public health and the environment.

The EPA’s response stated “Your petition raises substantial concerns regarding the sufficiency of Texas’ implementation of the UIC Class II program that the EPA Region 6 will need to evaluate through extensive and thorough technical and legal review in order to evaluate the issues raised in your petition.”

“We are encouraged by the EPA’s decision to evaluate the issues raised in our petition,” said Virginia Palacios, Executive Director of Commission Shift. “This review represents a vital opportunity to address longstanding concerns about the oversight of Class II injection wells in Texas. We believe that a rigorous and transparent evaluation by the EPA will ultimately lead to stronger protections for our water resources and greater accountability for regulatory practices.”

“The Safe Drinking Water Act was passed back in 1974 to help protect water resources from pollution. Lawmakers and regulators at the time couldn’t have known exactly what potential pollutants might be cause for concern this many decades later, but we have the tool they intended. It’s time for us to engage the tool responsibly to fit our emerging pollution threats and to protect water resources for now and for generations to come,” said Becky Smith, Clean Water Action’s Texas Director.

Implications for Class VI carbon injection wells.

The Railroad Commission’s (RRC) mismanagement of oil and gas injection wells has significant implications for the future of Class VI CO2 storage wells, another type of well in the UIC program. The RRC is currently seeking primary permitting and regulatory authority, or “primacy,” from the EPA for these Class VI storage wells. CO2 injection wells can harm groundwater if CO2 mixes with drinking water sources, forming corrosive carbonic acid. CO2 in groundwater can also cause heavy metals to leach out of aquifer formations and harm the safety of drinking water.

Government subsidies like the 45Q tax credits currently make CO2 injection into Class II wells for the purposes of EOR far more profitable than long-term CO2 storage. Operators not only receive the tax break for CO2 injection but also benefit from the sale of the extracted oil, creating a financial incentive to prioritize EOR over long-term greenhouse gas mitigation. Since 1982, the RRC has permitted over 15,000 wells for EOR using CO2 as an injection fluid.

Under current rules, Class II wells used for EOR are allowed to be converted to Class VI wells intended for long-term carbon dioxide storage. This permitting flexibility could lead to a situation where wells initially designed for wastewater disposal or EOR activities are repurposed without adequate oversight or safety considerations.

The RRC’s poor track record in managing Class II wells raises serious concerns about their ability to effectively oversee Class VI wells. Instances of sinkholes, blowouts, leaks, and even induced earthquakes indicate oversight failures in the RRC’s Class II program. These same risks could be compounded with widespread commercial deployment of Class VI wells, potentially undermining efforts to mitigate climate change by safely and securely storing carbon dioxide.

The convergence of these factors underscores the urgent need for improved oversight and the strongest safety measures possible to ensure that groundwater resources can be protected with the advent of carbon-mitigation technologies.
“If Texas can’t handle the Class II program for oil and gas waste injection, how can we trust state agencies with Class VI wells for carbon waste injection?” asks Allison Brouk, Senior Attorney at Earthjustice. “We are glad that EPA is taking its obligations to protect drinking water seriously by taking a deep look at Texas’ historic failures and lax regulatory oversight of oil and gas waste injection wells.”

Response to the Investigation

Since the EPA’s response, seven congressional representatives have joined the call to encourage the EPA to maintain control over carbon storage wells. They argued that transferring carbon storage authority to the Railroad Commission of Texas would not sufficiently safeguard underground drinking water sources.

Commission Shift remains committed to working alongside the EPA, community members, and other organizations to ensure comprehensive oversight and justice for communities near sites of extraction and injection. We will continue to advocate for safety, community dialogue, and effective enforcement to protect Texas’ precious natural resources and the well-being of its communities.

Read the full letter from the EPA here.

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