The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said it will continue to exempt wastes from oil and natural gas operations from the law governing hazardous wastes after concluding that state programs to manage them were sufficient and spills were rare.

In a 279-page determination issued by the Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery, EPA concluded that changes to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) "are not necessary at this time...The oil and gas industry has undergone a significant transformation in recent years from the use of directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing to access unconventional formations, but states have also revised their regulatory programs to adapt to the challenges posed by these technological advancements; some within the last year.”

State programs "incorporate the majority of elements that are important components of waste management programs, which indicates that the scope of existing regulatory programs is robust." While acknowledging that waste spills may be damaging and cause adverse effects, "there is currently no evidence" that such spills are common, with most spills contained and addressed on-site.

"The primary causes identified for these releases were human error and non-compliance with existing state regulations," EPA said. "The available information does not indicate that new federal solid waste regulations would prevent or substantially mitigate these types of releases. Instead, human error and non-compliance can be appropriately and more readily addressed within the framework of existing state programs through increased inspections, improved enforcement and other targeted actions."

Although EPA was granted the authority under RCRA to promulgate and enforce federal regulations for managing hazardous wastes, it deferred applying the law in 1978 for six special waste categories, including oil and gas drilling muds and oil production brines. The deferment was made to give EPA time to investigate the composition, characteristics and degree of hazard for such wastes.

Several states recently have changed or reviewed their waste management programs. Ohio lawmakers have considered a proposal to give more revenue from injection well fees to communities where injection wells are located. Meanwhile, regulators in Oklahoma and Texas have been attempting to mitigate induced seismic activity from wastewater injection wells.