The oil and gas industry generates a boggling amount of waste, between drilling fluids, lubricants, and other industrial components used in drilling and processing. Much of that waste is toxic, containing an alphabet soup of compounds that are hazardous to humans and other living things, and it has to go somewhere. Enter the disposal or injection well, drilled specifically as a waste disposal point for byproducts of oil and gas production. Substances are injected deep into the ground, and when the well is full, it can be capped. In other words, after drilling some holes to get oil and gas out, you drill some more holes to dump unwanted waste back in.
This is industry standard for handling waste. It’s considered the most environmentally responsible approach, and it’s widely accepted, including by organisations like the EPA. But, as it turns out, there’s trouble in paradise. Those allegedly highly secure and safe wells may actually be leaking; and with over 680,000 around the United States, it would be awfully nice to know how many are leaking. Too bad that information isn’t available.
Several notable leaks have been identified, including in urban areas like Los Angeles where drilling continues alongside residential communities. Others are more stealthy, and are harder to track down. Geologists worry that even more may be ongoing without anyone’s awareness, leading to contamination of soil, groundwater, and the air. In other words, there’s a vast amount of hazardous industrial waste waiting to poison people, and no one knows precisely how much or where it’s going to hit, and everyone is just sort of waiting to see what happens.
Because it’s not like you can undo an injection well once it’s in place. Geologists point out that much of the data on injection wells is not based on the most current information, including the boom in the oil and gas industry. The more wells you create, the more you change the structure of rock formations and the soil, which means that you’re entering an entirely new ballgame. Think of it like a game of Jenga. When you pull out one or two pieces, you might not notice an appreciable difference in the stack. On the basis of that information, you might conclude that Jenga is a safe, stable, and sustainable game.
Several turns down the line, you may realise that in fact that is not the case, and that each block pulled out and added back in introduces a new element of complexity—and the risk that the entire tower is going to fall down. Except that instead of scattering little wooden blocks all over your floor, this game of Jenga will be releasing industrial waste into the natural environment, pushing toxins into waterways, fragile ecosystems, and of course homes and businesses where people may assume their water is safe because they’ve been told it is.
As with fracking, the EPA says that following regulations, using best practices, and pursuing regular inspections will keep injection wells safe. That requires a lot of faith, though, and it’s not necessarily faith that would be well-invested, given how the United States has handled environmental issues before.
Oil and gas companies don’t have a strong incentive to use best practices when best practices are more expensive. Their goal is to extract as much as possible as quickly as possible, and to dispose of waste efficiently. ‘Efficiently’ does not necessarily mean in the most environmentally friendly or productive way, it just means the way that costs the least amount of money and creates the least fuss. Hence, drilling additional holes to dump your unwanted materials, sealing them, and moving on.
Government agencies charged with regulating the oil and gas industry are often limited in many ways. While they can make recommendations, it’s hard to get companies to comply with them, and their actions may be undermined by Congress, which responds to lobbying from the industry to defang regulation and leave agencies unable to enforce regulations. For example, the number of oil and gas inspectors in the United States simply cannot keep pace with the number of sites, which means that mandated inspections aren’t occurring on schedule, and inspectors are under immense pressure to move fast, pass facilities, and not look too closely.
That’s a recipe for disaster, because companies can’t be counted on to comply with the law, and inspectors don’t always have the ability to make companies comply with the law. As the thirst for oil and gas climbs and exploration in new areas increases, each set of new wells brings new risks, and those risks are not being adequately addressed. The industry is slowly eating and poisoning the land with very limited oversight, and the consequences could potentially be very serious.
They also may not manifest immediately, which makes it even harder to address them. It may take decades before signs of environmental illness start to develop as wells fail and geological changes allow material to move out of the well and into the surrounding formations. Once people start getting sick and signs of problems appear in the natural environment, it’s already too late. The well has done its dirty work, and there’s no turning back, only cleanup.
Costly, dirty, expensive cleanup that can’t possibly hope to restore the environment to its prior state. And as you cleanup, the inevitable question emerges: What do you do with all the waste you’re sequestering, pulling out of the ground, and attempting to control?