Thousands of post-1980 wells are exempt from the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) that holds most industries accountable for cleaning up hazardous waste. The act, passed in 1980 and amended in 1986, allows the federal government to respond to releases of hazardous substances that threaten human health or the environment. It created a trust fund known as “Superfund” to be used to clean up contaminated sites; the fund is financed via taxes on the chemical and petroleum industries.
Congress has since abolished the taxes and pays for the fund through general revenues. As a result, the fund is too small to meet cleanup goals. Yet the liability exemption for drilling companies remains (Mall et al. 2007, CERCLA 2008).
Superfund allows Potentially Responsible Parties (PRPs) to be held liable for clean-up costs for a release or threatened release of a “hazardous substance.” But the law defines this term to exclude oil and natural gas (CERCLA 2008).
Consequently, the industry has little incentive to clean up its hazardous waste and to minimize leaks and spills. In 2006, oil companies in Campbell County, Wyoming reported five spills including 265 barrels of oil that leaked from a storage tank and 150 barrels from a valve left open. (Mall et al. 2008, NRS 2008). IHS data show that
Campbell County is one of the most intensively drilled counties in the West.