Federal Laws: Waste Management
This section includes links to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and associated regulations, guidelines, and policies pertinent to oil and gas surface operations. See the Solid Waste Resource page for more information on Solid Waste managment in the oil and gas development process.
Resource Conservation and Recovery Act
The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) functions as the primary law for regulating solid and hazardous wastes. Congress passed the law in 1976 as an amendment to the Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965 in order to manage the increasing amount of industrial waste in the United States. “RCRA” commonly refers to the combination of the 1976 act, the 1965 Solid Waste Disposal Act, and amendments to these two acts (RCRA Orientation Manual 2006).
The goals set by RCRA are: (1) to protect human health and the environment from the potential hazards of waste disposal; (2) to conserve energy and natural resources; (3) to reduce the amount of waste generated; and (4) to ensure that wastes are managed in an environmentally sound manner (RCRA Orientation Manual 2006).
Subtitle C of RCRA authorizes the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate hazardous waste. This includes all stages of the waste’s life cycle: generation, transportation, treatment, storage, and disposal. It requires careful tracking and bookkeeping of waste through all of its stages. RCRA Subtitle D provides a framework for the management of non-hazardous solid wastes. Most waste generated during oil and gas exploration and production (E&P waste) is governed by Subtitle D regulations. Subtitle D focuses on waste management practices that are environmentally safe and maximize the potential reuse of resources. This section of RCRA primarily applies to states and requires state methods for addressing waste management concerns. (EPA, Summary of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, 2010).
Subtitle C Exemptions
EPA proposed a special class of large-volume, lower-toxicity wastes for exemption from RCRA Subtitle C hazardous waste regulations in 1978. Oil and gas exploration and production wastes were among those wastes considered and were eventually permanently exempted. The initial exemption was made permanent in 1988 when EPA completed a comprehensive study determining whether the exemption would put human health or environment at risk (EPA, “Exemption of Oil and Gas Exploration and Production wastes form federal Hazardous Waste Regulations”).
E&P Exemption Revisited
Wastes included in the exemption are: gas and oil drilling muds; oil production brines; drilling fluids; rigwash; and other wastes associated with the exploration, development, or production of crude oil or natural gas The “other wastes” category traditionally includes materials “intrinsically derived form primary field operations associated with the exploration, development, or production of crude oil and natural gas.“ Waste resulting from transportation and manufacturing operations are not exempt.
EPA has a general rule-of-thumb test for determining whether E&P waste is exempt from Subtitle C: If the waste was brought to the surface during oil and gas E&P operations or it was generated by contact with the oil and gas production stream during the removal of produced water or other contaminants from the product, it is probably exempt.
See EPA, “Exemption of Oil and Gas Exploration and Production wastes from federal Hazardous Waste Regulations” for a complete list of exempt and non-exempt E&P wastes. The exemptions are codified at 40 C.F.R. § 261.4.
RCRA Subtitle C
Because E&P wastes are generally exempt from Subtitle C, there are few provisions particularly relevant to oil and gas development. They are:
40 C.F.R § 261.2 – Definition of Hazardous Solid Waste – Before waste can be considered hazardous and subject to Subtitle C, it must first be classified as solid and hazardous. The definition provided is more detailed and extensive than 40 C.F.R. § 257.2, which applies primarily in determining what waste should be disposed of in municipal and other facilities. Very broadly, this section classifies hazardous solid waste as any discarded material that does not fall under any of RCRA’s many exemptions, regardless of whether it is a solid or liquid. Accordingly, liquid E&P wastes may be subject to RCRA Subtitle C despite its physical form if it does not fall under one of the Subtitle C exemptions.
E&P Waste Exclusion
40 C.F.R. § 261.4 - Exclusions – The broad E&P exemption to oil and gas is granted in this section. There are additional definitional exclusions that apply to the oil and gas industry, including recovered oil that is recycled in the same manner as the oil-bearing hazardous secondary materials is also excluded. Recovered oil is oil that has been reclaimed from secondary materials, including wastewater, generated from standard industry practices. The exclusions are, however, subject to state and federal regulations.
40 C.F.R. § 271.1 – State Authority – States may not impose less stringent requirements than RCRA. They may, however, impose higher standards.
RCRA Subtitle D
Provisions particularly relevant to oil and gas development are:
40 C.F.R. § 257.2 – Provides the Subtitle D non-hazardous solid waste definition. “Solid waste means any garbage, refuse, sludge from a waste treatment plant, water supply treatment plant, or air pollution control facility and other discarded material, including solid, liquid, semisolid, or contained gaseous material resulting from industrial, commercial, mining, and agricultural operations, and from community activities, but does not include[, as applicable to oil and gas development] . . . industrial discharges which are point sources subject to [NPDES] permits . . ..” Broadly, Subtitle D regulates garbage, refuse, sludges, nonhazardous industrial wastes, and other discarded materials from industrial and commercial activities.
40 C.F.R. § 239.2 – State Permit Program – Oil and gas solid waste will be subject to state permit plans. Under this section, states have the authority to create Subtitle D permit programs. Waste that meets the Subtitle D definition will be subject to these state permit plans. Should the EPA determine the program is inadequate, the federal revised criteria will be applied to regulated facilities in that state.
40 C.F.R. § 257.1 – Sanitary Landfills Required for All Disposal – States may not allow open dumps and all solid waste must be disposed of in proper landfills.
EPA Oil and Gas Guidance
Profile of the Oil and Gas Extraction Industry - This profile was published by the EPA Office of Compliance as part of its Sector Notebook project in 2000. The profile provides an introduction to the oil and gas extraction industry, its waste streams, pollution prevention opportunities, compliance and enforcement history, compliance assurance activities and initiatives, and a summary of pertinent statutes and regulations
RCRA Orientation Manual 2006 – This manual was published by the EPA Office of Solid Waste/Communications, Information and Resources Management Division. It provides an overview and background of RCRA and guides those working in the waste management industry to appropriate RCRA sections.