Wyden floats fracking regs framework

Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) floated a proposal Thursday to let states regulate fracking underground while permitting the federal government to set reporting and disclosure requirements.

The framework Wyden laid out would affect fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, across the country, setting it apart from an ongoing process led by the Interior Department that covers only federal land. Much of the U.S. shale energy boom has occurred on private and state land left untouched by the draft Interior rule, making Wyden's proposal a hefty one.

“I want to explore the idea of giving the states a really broad berth, a really key role, on what happens below ground, while the federal government could have a leadership role on a number of the key issues above ground, such as disclosure and spill reporting,” Wyden said at a Washington, D.C., event hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center.

He said, “there’s been some interest” in the idea, though he said discussions were “preliminary.”

The concept was one of many Wyden said he’s talking to lawmakers about regarding natural gas. Other areas of focus included smoothing the path for using natural gas in the transportation sector, upgrading pipeline infrastructure, managing exports and the environment.

The fracking scheme might be one of the heavier lifts.

Fracking involves injecting a high-pressure mixture of water, sand and chemicals into tight rock formations to tap hydrocarbons buried deep underground.

The oil and gas industry says the practice is safe, but green and public health groups worry it could pollute drinking water.

Divvying up fracking oversight would attempt to split the difference between complaints industry and environmental groups have about the draft Interior fracking rule.

Industry, along with their congressional allies, and states have argued that states are best left to regulate fracking, given the different geological formations across the country.

But fracking’s opponents say the technology is changing — and becoming more widespread — faster than states can regulate it, and have called on the federal government to institute safeguards.

The draft Interior rule requires drillers to disclose the chemicals used during fracking on federal land while also establishing requirements for well integrity and for managing so-called flowback water.

Environmental and public health groups have argued the draft rule is too weak, particularly when it comes to chemical reporting.

They want drillers to reveal the chemicals they’re using before beginning fracking rather than after, as the current Interior draft rule would require.

They’ve taken issue with the industry-backed reporting website Interior chose for disclosing chemical use, saying it’s not easily searchable and doesn’t aggregate data.

Wyden said he’s asked the Energy Department and the National Academy of Sciences to review FracFocus, the reporting database. He called the website a good start, but wants to see whether improvements might be necessary.

“I would say standardized reporting for fracking fluids and spills doesn’t have anything to do with geology, and has quite a bit more to do with transparency and public confidence,” Wyden said.

Industry has defended FracFocus, and many states are already using it.

While industry and states are supportive of the use of FracFocus in Interior's draft rule, they have said federal requirements on how to construct wells and other processes underground would be duplicative. 

Industry contends such rules could burden the many small, independent drillers that helped sparked the shale energy boom. And states say what's needed to make a well safe in Colorado might be different from what's required in Pennsylvania.

In his comments, Wyden appeared amenable to those concerns, crediting a position pushed by Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and alluded to by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

“States really have the most thorough and comprehensive knowledge of their own geology and that that is a reason for giving the states a strong role. Sally Jewell has to some extent made the same argument,” Wyden said.

--This report was updated at 4:41 p.m.

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