Obama administration unveils fracking rules

The Interior Department unveiled a revised proposal Thursday to regulate the oil-and-gas development process known as fracking when it occurs on federal and Indian lands.

It’s Interior’s second swing at the delayed rules after the department in January pulled back a proposal from mid-2012.

“The new proposal maintains important safety standards, improves integration with existing state and tribal standards, and increases flexibility for oil and gas developers,” the department said in a statement Thursday.

The plan drew immediate criticism from industry officials who say the rules are not needed, and from green groups who say Interior has made troubling concessions to oil and gas companies.

ADVERTISEMENT
The drilling method called hydraulic fracturing is enabling a U.S. oil-and-gas production boom but bringing fears of water and air pollution along with it.

The proposed rules require energy companies to disclose chemicals that are used in the fracking process.


The measures also require companies to verify that fluids from the fracking process aren’t escaping into groundwater, and mandates that they have management plans for large volumes of “flowback water,” which is a byproduct of well development.

The revised rules also offer concessions to the oil-and-gas industry.

The concessions include allowing drillers to use an existing, industry-favored database called “FracFocus” to meet the rules’ chemical disclosure requirements — a tool that critics call too weak.

Other changes include providing more flexibility to companies in how they show the adequacy of cementing jobs in wells, and alterations to provisions on withholding of trade secrets in the disclosure mandate.

The American Petroleum Institute, which has long battled new fracking regulations, acknowledged the changes to the rule but said federal regulation is unnecessary.

“While changes to the proposed rule attempt to better acknowledge the state role, [the Bureau of Land Management] has yet to answer the question why BLM is moving forward with these requirements in the first place,” said Erik Milito, a senior API representative, in a statement.

Environmental groups panned the rules.

“Although no amount of regulation will make fracking acceptable, the proposed BLM rules fail even to take obvious steps to make it safer. This proposal does not require drillers to disclose all chemicals being used for fracking and continues to allow trade-secret exemptions for the oil and gas industry,” said Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune in a statement.

On Capitol Hill, the rules drew criticism from both sides of the aisle.

“The Obama administration is once again choosing costly red tape at the expense of American jobs and American energy production,” said House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.).
 
Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), in contrast, called the rules too weak.

“It gives oil and gas companies the freedom to frack without the proper safety protections and disclosures the American public deserve,” said Markey, who is the Democratic nominee for a Senate seat in Massachusetts.

Markey’s office criticized the use of FracFocus in the revised plan, noting the site “is both not run by the federal government and does not allow for easy public access to the information, limiting oversight of the industry.”

Interior officials defended the changes to the rules, including the decision to allow use of FracFocus for disclosure, noting there is still a new level of federal oversight and review.

“There certainly is a check and balance. [FracFocus] is just a method of delivery of that information,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said on a call with reporters.

But Jewell also pushed back against industry claims that state-level rules are sufficient without the new federal mandates. Jewell said various state requirements form a “patchwork” and are “not consistent” across states.

Jewell said “fracking has been done safely for decades” but also said that the new federal oversight is needed to help ensure safe development.

Fracking involves high-pressure injections of water, chemicals and sand into shale formations to open seams that enable gas and oil to escape.

The growth of fracking, combined with horizontal drilling techniques, is enabling a U.S. oil-and-gas boom, helping send oil production to its highest level in two decades and natural gas production to record levels.

Interior noted Thursday that 90 percent of the wells drilled on federal and Indian lands use fracking.

But the rule’s scope is also limited.

Many of the shale formations where the oil-and-gas boom is occurring, such as regions of North Dakota and Pennsylvania, underlie state and private lands.

Interior’s Bureau of Land Management plans to take comment on the proposal for 30 days.

— This story was posted at 2:53 p.m. and has been updated.