Environmental groups say President Obama squandered the best opportunity he had to tighten regulations on the process of hydraulic fracturing for oil and natural gas.
Congress exempted fracking from many environmental laws, and Interior Department regulations unveiled late last week were perhaps the last major chance environmentalists had to crack down on the controversial practice at the federal level.
“We do think it’s a missed opportunity and continue to wonder why the Interior Department isn’t putting conservation as its top objective,” said Bill Snape, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “It continues to give away favors to the oil and gas industry on our lands.”
Snape said the Interior Department was derelict in its duty to protect the nation’s public lands when it announced the rule last week. Fracking can contaminate groundwater, air, soil and waterways, and harm the health of humans and animals, he said.
The department “continues to shirk its mandate to protect lands and waters of the United States for all Americans,” he added.
The fracking standards only apply to drilling on leased federal land and land owned by American Indian tribes, which account for less than a quarter of the country’s oil production and 17 percent of its gas. The vast majority of fracking is done on non-federal land.
Still, Kate DeAngelis, the lead climate and energy campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said as the first major federal rules specific to fracking, the Interior Department’s regulations have an effect beyond the federal government’s holdings.
“If they had put out strong regulations, it would have had a huge impact,” she said. “So I think it was a lost opportunity.”
For example, regulators said they had hoped states would take the federal rules as a template to formulate their own fracking regulations for state and private land.
“Even in that, they failed, because it’s not setting a very strong example to begin with,” DeAngelis said.
To frack a well, an oil or gas company injects fluid into the well, breaking shale rock that contains deposits.
The practice has become widespread in recent years and has been one of the driving forces behind the energy boom that has made the United States the top oil and gas producer in the world.
Environmentalists concerned about fracking’s effects suffered a setback in 2005, when Congress exempted fracking from part of the Safe Drinking Water Act, as well as some clean water and air rules. Environmentalists call the provision the “Halliburton loophole, ” a reference to the company led by former Vice President Cheney before he was elected to office.
The action left few options for a crackdown on fracking. Chief among them were tough restrictions that Interior’s Bureau of Land Management could exercise over federal land that hosts mineral leases by private companies. About 8 percent of the nation’s wells are on federal land.
“Realistically, we would have just hoped for stronger regulations and stronger support for rules that would close those loopholes that were put in place in 2005, and making sure that oil and gas companies are held accountable for the devastation that they are causing in our water and our air,” DeAngelis said of the rules.
While fracking has been taking place on federal land for years, the new regulations seek to take account of recently developed technology and practices in three areas: well construction standards, disclosure of the chemicals injected into the ground and storage of the fluid that comes back out of the well.
The industry was disappointed with the rules as well and accused the Obama administration of catering to extreme environmental interests.
Less than an hour after the rules were unveiled, the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) and Western Energy Alliance filed a lawsuit in federal court to have them overturned.
“These new mandates on hydraulic fracturing by the federal government ... are the complete opposite of common sense,” IPAA President Barry Russell said in a statement.