After much study, EPA has decided against changing its current RCRA Subtitle D rules affecting the state regulation of oil and gas exploration & production waste. Since 1988, EPA has determined that most such wastes should be regulated as only non-hazardous wastes subject to RCRA Subtitle D, and not the more onerous hazardous waste provisions of RCRA Subtitle C. (See the Regulatory Determination of Oil and Gas and Geothermal Exploration, Development and Production Wastes, 53 FR 25,446 (July 6,1988).)
As a result, under the Subtitle D rules, the primary regulators of such waste are state regulatory agencies, which follow the state plan non-hazardous waste guidelines developed by EPA. This regulatory disposition has proven to be fairly controversial, and it was recently challenged in a lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia: Environmental Integrity Project, et al. v. McCarthy. To settle this lawsuit, EPA and the plaintiffs entered into a consent decree by which EPA was to make certain determinations about the future of the program after conducting an appropriate study. That study, Management of Exploration, Development and Production Wastes: Factors Informing a Decision on the Need for Regulatory Action, has been completed, and it concludes, after a fairly comprehensive review of these state regulatory programs, that “revisions to the federal regulations for the management of E&P wastes under Subtitle D of RCRA (40 CFR Part 257) are not necessary at this time.” In a statement released on April 23, 2019, EPA accepted these findings and promised that it would continue to work with states and other stakeholders to identify areas for improvement and to address emerging issues to ensure that exploration, development and production wastes “continue to be managed in a manner that is protective of human health and the environment.”
The study notes that with the advent of hydraulic fracturing techniques, the scale and scope of exploration and production operations in the United States have dramatically changed since 1988, but that the states have been able to say abreast of the regulatory challenges created by this activity. It is doubtful that this will be the last word on this matter, given its regulatory history. However, it must be recalled that the Congress expressed special concern for the appropriate regulation of these wastes in 1980 when the “Bentsen Amendment” to the Solid Waste Disposal Act was enacted.