In a move its predecessor would be proud of, the Obama administration has bowed to industry pressure and proposed rules on hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” on public lands that put the nation’s water supply at risk of contamination with cancer-causing chemicals.
Fracking is the controversial drilling technique in which energy companies blast millions of gallons of chemically treated water into the earth to force oil and gas out of underground deposits. The fracking-enabled oil-and-gas development rush has been associated with poisoned drinking water, polluted air, unexplained animal deaths, industrial accidents and explosions. In a recent four-year period, companies engaged in fracking used 29 chemicals that are known or possible carcinogens or otherwise put human health at risk, according to a U.S. House of Representatives study.
The U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is accepting public comment right now on proposed rules for fracking on public lands that are even weaker than a draft issued a year ago. Drinking water for millions of Americans travel through public lands. In the Washington, D.C., area, the George Washington National Forest hosts streams in Virginia and West Virginia that feed into the James and Potomac rivers, which supply the drinking water for families in the metro D.C. region.
Specifically, the proposed rules do not require energy companies to make sure the cement barriers in fracking wells are safe, even though the barriers are the only things preventing toxic chemicals from seeping into the groundwater. If the proposed rules become final, drillers would be allowed to test one well in a group, rather than each individual well, and reports of those tests may only be submitted to the agency after, not before, fracking has already occurred.
In addition, the proposed rules do not require fracking companies to disclose the chemicals they are using before pumping them into the ground. Instead, drillers would only be asked to share information with FracFocus, an industry-sponsored website. The current plan for disclosure is woefully insufficient; a Harvard Law School study concluded that the website was not effective and did not serve the public interest. Worse, the proposed rule allows the industry to keep many toxic chemicals used in fracking hidden from the public as long as they submit an affidavit to the BLM stating that they used chemical constituents that deserve trade secret protection.
The public has a right to know what chemicals are near or in its water supply. If communities knew what chemicals were being injected into the ground, they would be able to test and monitor their water supplies for fracking-related water contamination.
As the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held hearings on natural gas last month, people from around the country came to Washington to share their experiences with oil-and-gas drilling. Among them was Deb Thomas of Clark, Wyo. On Aug. 11, 2006, an oil-and-gas company drilling near her home lost control of a gas well, after the well casing failed. Water contaminated with drilling fluid chemicals and hydrocarbons spewed from the ground and a toxic cloud covered the community. Residents were evacuated for 3 days while the well blew out of control. The neighborhood’s drinking water aquifers are contaminated; the residents are sick and many must rely on bottled water and expensive water treatment systems.
The administration had 11 meetings with the energy industry as it drafted the proposed rules. Not surprisingly, the industry got what it wanted. Now it is time to listen to the voices of people like Deb who are on the front lines of the fracking rush. The administration must strengthen the proposed fracking rules to protect against the known dangers of irresponsible drilling.
In his 2013 State of the Union Address, President Obama pledged that his administration would “take every possible action” to develop natural-gas safely. By proposing a fracking rule that protects the oil-and-gas industry and not people living in the shadow of the fracking boom, the BLM is putting the president on a path to betray that promise. It’s time for the administration to change course and keep its promise to protect our families.
Hayden is vice president of policy and legislation at Earthjustice, a nonprofit public interest law organization.