The Department of the Interior is about to propose a revised version of rules to govern the practice of hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells on federal lands. The department’s Bureau of Land Management oversees drilling on 700 million acres of land, including almost 60 million acres of private land where the agency owns the mineral rights.
Natural gas is a key component to establishing a clean energy future in the United States, but the public must be confident that it is done safely and responsibly, and the proposed rule released today by the Department of the Interior misses the mark.
The federal rules governing the controversial well stimulation technique commonly called fracking — which haven’t been updated since 1988 — should be a model of thorough, transparent and workable government oversight.
Most of the lands where they will be applied belong to all Americans, a birthright that we hold in trust for generations to come. That alone requires the Interior Department and the Obama administration to not cut corners in deference to the oil and gas industry. Unfortunately there are numerous indications that, as Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) said last week, “The Interior Department seems to be making the rule weaker, not stronger.”
The tests that the new rules should meet include the following:
- Maximum transparency. Chemicals used in fracking must be disclosed to the public to the greatest extent possible. While it is common in states that require disclosure to allow exemptions for trade secrets held by individual companies, this exception has in some cases been stretched to become a loophole. In the new federal rules there should be thorough oversight so that only truly legitimate trade secrets are protected. And even real trade secret information should be disclosed to regulators and medical professionals who may have to respond to health emergencies.
- Disclosure through a government website. The public must have access to full information on where fracking is occurring, and what substances are being used, through a government-run website, not one that is industry supported. The FracFocus website managed by an Oklahoma non-profit with industry ties has numerous flaws. It doesn’t collect and publish some of the information that individual states require be disclosed, and it is very difficult for users of the site to aggregate and analyze information.
- Disclosure before drilling. The public must know before drilling begins, and not only after it is completed, what chemicals are being injected underground. Early disclosure will allow the public and nearby private landowners to assess risks to their health and to document conditions that exist before drilling begins so they can make comparisons if accidents or spills occur.
- Baseline and post-drilling water testing. The Department of the Interior should require that nearby water supplies be tested both before and after drilling.
- State of the art well construction standards. Protection of underground water supplies cannot be guaranteed without application of the highest possible industry standards for well integrity and testing of cement casings.
With the unveiling of the new rules on fracking on public lands the Interior Department under new Secretary Sally Jewell — and the Obama administration as a whole — will be laying down an important marker about how they will manage fossil fuel development on the public’s lands.
Other tests lie ahead. They include whether the administration can build on the progress made during the first term in reforming oil and gas leasing so the program does a better job of cohesive planning over large landscapes and of avoiding conflicts with other resources and uses such as recreation and municipal watersheds. The administration should also make good on its promise to raise decades-old royalty rates paid by oil and gas companies, should adopt a clean resources standard for public lands to re-direct energy development more towards clean energy, and should take into account climate change impacts when doing environmental reviews of energy projects.
Finally, an administration which has been aggressive about increasing fossil fuel production from federal lands should be equally aggressive about conserving public lands that have great value for things other than commercial development. As we have shown in the past, the administration’s record in that regard is insufficient, and lags far behind some of its recent predecessors.