Groups flock to White House to talk ‘fracking’ rules

The White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), which serves as the gatekeeper for regulations, held three meetings last week on fracking with groups and companies including Anadarko Petroleum, the League of Conservation Voters, Apache Corp., America's Natural Gas Alliance, the Sierra Club, Environment America, Devon Energy, the Center for Effective Government and the Natural Resources Defense Council, among others.

On Feb. 11, executives from Devon Energy met with OIRA officials; the next meeting, on Feb. 14, gave the environmental groups the stage; and on Feb. 15, the oil-and-gas industry sat down with the administration.

Fracking forces millions of gallons of water, sand and chemical additives into deep layers of the earth to create cracks through which oil and gas can flow. 

The practice has been credited with creating an energy boom in the United States. Natural-gas production is at record highs and oil production is soaring too, potentially setting the U.S. on course to become the world’s largest producer of oil.  

Green groups say the fracking process risks heavy damage to the environment and the water supply, and are demanding stronger federal oversight.

Earlier this month, a revised version of the rule was obtained by the environment trade publication EnergyWire, though the administration has not confirmed its validity.

Officials with Environment America, the Sierra Club and the Center for Effective Government who participated in the Feb. 14 White House meeting said the revamped fracking proposal was woefully inadequate to protect the public and hold the oil-and-gas industry accountable for the level of toxins used in the hydraulic fracturing process.

Frances Hunt, the Sierra Club’s senior Washington representative, said the groups aired their concerns with OIRA officials about the weakening of technical definitions of what would have to be supervised, calling it a shift toward less oversight. They also criticized regulators for relying on an industry-backed database for reporting the chemicals used by each company.

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Representatives from the oil-and-gas industry declined to reveal any specifics about their meetings with OIRA.

“We aren’t going to characterize the meeting other than to say it was an opportunity to provide technical input on the BLM [proposed] rule,” said Dan Whitten, a spokesman with America's Natural Gas Alliance. 

Devon Energy said it conducts regular meetings with federal agencies, but has a policy not to talk about them. 

The industry has been to Capitol Hill several times recently to make the case for less federal regulation, arguing state-level oversight will be sufficient to protect public safety. A PowerPoint presentation attached to the Feb. 15 meeting echoes the state-level regulation request, adding that the “environmental record is excellent” with compliance of “state requirements” on federal lands.

Many in the oil-and-gas production industry applauded the withdrawal of the first proposal, saying it would have been costly to implement.

“We hope the administration will recognize the strong oversight provided by existing state and federal regulations and take sufficient time to review the many thoughtful comments provided by the oil and natural gas industry and others,” said Jack Gerard, the president and chief executive of the American Petroleum Institute, in a statement last month. 

“Conflicting or duplicative federal requirements would delay development of abundant domestic oil and natural gas and threaten jobs and revenue to the federal treasury, without providing additional environmental protection.”

Environmental groups disagree, and are pressuring the White House to set strict rules.

“We think that fracking is a huge environmental and public health threat,” said Shelley Vinyard, a clean water advocate with Environment America. “If the administration is thinking about moving forward with fracking on federal lands, they should at least follow the recommendations of their own federal agencies.”

The Department of Energy and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) have each released reports regarding increasing the liability for the oil-and-gas industry if the chemicals from fracking seep into the ground, in addition to other issues. 

GAO has suggested strengthening insurance requirement in the case of accidents, a measure Environment America supports.

Several insiders present at the Feb. 14 meeting told The Hill that the officials mostly listened during the White House sessions. Each meeting had a 30-minute limit for groups to state their case, but follow-up or debate-style questions were not allowed, as part of the standard operating procedure.

“If anything, they asked comprehension questions because we were talking so fast,” said Hunt, who noted that the seven environmental and public interest groups wanted to make sure all the concerns could be aired in the half-hour allotted.

In addition to OIRA, BLM and Interior Department representatives, other participants in the meetings included members of the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality and officials from regional departments of the Office of Management and Budget.