Interior’s fracking rules in cross hairs ahead of upcoming release

Lawmakers from both parties are pouncing on the federal government's attempt to regulate hydraulic fracturing, the natural gas extraction method also known as fracking, even before the draft rules have been released.

At a hearing before the House Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday, Republicans accused the Interior Department of executive overreach and heard from a number of state officials and gas industry executives who asked for relief from federal rules. Democrats countered by warning of industry pressure and ineffective safety standards.

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With Interior expected to release draft rules governing fracking on public lands in the coming weeks, a core disagreement dividing legislators comes down to who should regulate fracking: the federal government or the states.

"States are able to carefully craft regulations to meet the unique geologic and hydrologic needs of their states," said Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.), the chairman of the House committee, who claimed that federal rules would be redundant, costly and would needlessly delay gas production.

"The regulatory needs of North Dakota versus Ohio and New Mexico are vastly different," he added. "Imposing a one-size-fits-all regulatory structure, as the Obama administration is attempting to do, will not work."

"States have successfully regulated more then 1.2 million hydraulic fracturing operations spanning 60 years," argued Montana state Sen. Alan Olson (R). "New federal mandates are not necessary given their exemplary safety record."

Democrats, though, called on the federal government to step in and insure uniform safety standards across the country.

"State regulations vary widely in their requirements and in the stringency of those requirements — and the efficacy varies as well," countered Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.).

"That's why it's important that the Interior Department put in place a regulatory floor of safety measures to assure that there are at least minimal protections in place on all public lands in all states," he added.

In using the technique, which some find controversial, drillers pump water, sand and chemicals into rock formations at a high pressure to open up seams and allow gas to escape.

The new proposal will be the first safety update for the practice in 30 years and will likely require drillers to disclose the chemicals they use, impose standards on well integrity and manage "flowback water" which returns to the surface after extracting the gas.

At the hearing, Democrats also expressed concerns that the Interior Department is already caving to industry pressure.

"Under intense pressure from the industry and their allies in Congress, the Interior Department appears to be making the fracking rule weaker, not stronger," claimed Holt, who referred to leaked versions of the rule that seem to scale back chemical and well safety standards.

"Weakening these key requirements is troubling to me and I think to many of my colleagues and to the American people," he added.

On Tuesday, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell repeated that the department was "very close" to unveiling draft rules on fracking, and that they would come in a matter of "weeks, not months."

Jewell denied that the proposed rules will cave to industry demands.

“I would say that the fracking rules are not bowing to industry pressure or environmental pressure. They are taking the best science available,” she told reporters on Tuesday.

In January, the Interior Department withdrew a previous fracking regulation proposal after a backlash from both environmental and oil and gas industry groups.

The department says it is now "making improvements to the draft proposal in order to maximize flexibility, facilitate coordination with state practices and ensure that operators on public lands implement best practices," according to Interior spokesman Blake Androff.

After the draft rules are released and the public submits comments, Androff said that the administration's final rule "will ensure that operators apply proven cost-effective safety and environmental protection processes when engaging in hydraulic fracturing on our public lands."