Tribes to take over regulation of injection wells

By Susan Gallagher
Helena, Montana (AP) 11-08

Tribes of the Fort Peck Reservation will become the nation’s first to take the place of the federal government in regulating a type of well associated with oil and natural gas development, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said.

The EPA has authorized Fort Peck’s Assiniboine and Sioux tribes to take over administration of a program – as some state governments have done – that is intended to prevent injection wells from harming underground sources of drinking water. The Montana tribes, rather than the federal government, will issue permits for the wells, which are used for below-ground disposal of salty water and sometimes are injected with fluids to enhance recovery of oil and gas. The tribes will be responsible for enforcing the permits’ conditions.

In the Southwest, the EPA has approved a Navajo tribal application to administer an injection-well program. That transfer of authority covering hundreds of wells would take effect later this year, after the effective date of Nov. 26 on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northeastern Montana.

Shifting authority from EPA to the tribes “is a recognition of tribal capacity and sovereignty that paves the way for other tribes with the technical ability to manage this important program,” Steve Tuber, the agency’s assistant regional administrator in Denver, said in a statement. The Fort Peck tribal staff includes a petroleum engineer and a hydrologist, said Deb Madison of the tribal environmental office.


Use of injection wells for salty water is a disposal method that EPA generally finds easier on the environment than methods using water or pits above ground. Injection wells also may be used for storage of hydrocarbons.

The Fort Peck reservation has 24 wells of the type covered by the EPA decision, and most are 3,500 to 4,000 feet deep, Madison said.

Fort Peck officials have said that having a tribally run program will appeal to well operators because it will shorten the time necessary to process permit applications. Processing time of weeks rather than months has been projected, said Douglas Minter at EPA’s regional office in Denver. Permit applications that EPA received from various sources became backlogged because there were so many, Minter said.

The work requires evaluations to determine that wells are designed and maintained properly, and that existing or potential sources of drinking water are not jeopardized. Concerns include leaky well casings through which fluids could pass and enter underground sources of drinking water.

The EPA, which received little public comment on the Fort Peck regulatory proposal, will oversee tribal administration of the injection-well program on the reservation.

The tribes are to receive about $20,000 to $25,000 in federal funds with which to implement their work. To obtain more money, the tribes have the option of attaching fees to wells, something the state does to help fund its regulatory work.

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