Proposed fracking rules hit by green, oil groups

The Washington Post

The Obama administration drew sharp criticism from environmental and oil industry groups Thursday when it issued a new draft of regulations for fracking on federal and Indian lands.

Environmental groups said the new draft provides weaker water protections than a version the Interior Department proposed a year ago, and oil industry groups said they wanted regulation to be left in the hands of states and opposed any federal regulations at all.

In its first update of hydraulic fracturing regulations in three decades, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will require wider disclosure of chemicals used in drilling. It will also require that companies have a water management plan for fluids that flow back to the surface and use techniques to assure well-bore integrity so toxic fluids don’t leak into groundwater.

But environmental groups are seeking a ban on the storage of waste fluids in open lined pits. They also want complete disclosure of chemicals used in fracking, which the regulations do not require.

Instead, the regulations will allow companies to disclose the identity of chemicals that are used to a website, FracFocus, that has been criticized for its ties to industry. A Harvard Law School study concluded that FracFocus is not effective and “does not serve the interests of the public.”

Companies can also use affidavits to assert trade-secret protection for certain chemicals, though the BLM will keep the authority to require disclosure “if necessary,” the Energy Department said.

The proposed regulations were also revised to allow companies to test the integrity of cement barriers in one well and then let that guide the development of similar wells.

“These rules protect industry, not people,” said Natural Resources Defense Council President Frances Beinecke. “They are riddled with gaping holes that endanger clean, safe drinking water supplies for millions of Americans nationwide.” She added that “this draft is a blueprint for business-as-usual industrialization of our landscapes.”

Meanwhile, the American Petroleum Institute criticized the department for not simply leaving regulation to state agencies.

In a conference call, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who as a petroleum engineer used hydraulic fracturing while drilling oil and gas wells during the 1970s, called the proposals “common-sense updates” of regulations that “date back to the Sony Walkman and Atari video game.” She called fracking “an essential tool” but said it should not be left to a “patchwork” of state regulations.

The department said that about 90 percent of the oil and gas wells drilled on federal and Indian lands used hydraulic fracturing, a technique that unlocks oil and gas from shale rock by creating small fissures for oil and gas to flow through.

The BLM estimated the total cost of the new regulations will range from $12 million to $20 million a year, down from the estimated annual costs of $37 million to $44 million of the original proposed rule. When averaged over all hydraulically fractured wells on federal lands each year, the costs will amount to no more than $5,100 per well, the BLM said.

The public still has 30 days to comment on the second draft of the rules, and officials said they are particularly interested in comments about whether to require storage of waste fluids in closed tanks instead of open pits. The first draft of the regulations, issued a year ago, drew about 177,000 comments.

“This new fracking rule is extremely disappointing,” said Rep. Edward Markey, the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee and a candidate for Senate. “It gives oil and gas companies the freedom to frack without the proper safety protections and disclosures the American public deserve.”

Environmental groups said the proposal is weaker than what was proposed a year earlier. “It is clear what happened: the Bureau of Land Management caved to the wealthy and powerful oil and gas industry and left the public to fend for itself,” said Earthjustice’s legislative representative, Jessica Ennis, in a statement.