CREDIT: AP Photo/Brennan Linsley
This week, the public comment period closed on the Obama Administration’s draft rules to establish consistent standards and environmental protections for the use of hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking,’ techniques to extract gas and oil from federal and Indian lands — a total of 600 million acres.
Among the 1.3 million comments submitted to the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), was a letter sent by the new ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), and five colleagues. The House Democrats are calling on the Administration to strengthen a rule that the oil and gas industry has fought to weaken, and to make three commonsense fixes to protect the public’s health, stating, “We stress that DOI do its part in making hydraulic fracturing an informed and transparent public process… ensuring that public health comes before industry profit.”
Fracking — the process of injecting a mixture of chemicals and fluids into the ground at a high pressure to release oil and gas trapped in shale rocks — has increased on both public and private lands in recent years. While the unconventional oil and gas reserves that fracking has brought online has helped U.S. natural gas production reach record levels, the practice has spurred widespread concern over its potential impacts — contaminating and straining drinking water supplies, and affecting human health.
To help address these concerns, the Obama Administration proposed rules in May 2012 that included three basic requirements for companies wanting to frack on public lands:
1. Public disclosure of chemicals being used in their fracking fluids;
2. Stronger standards for how wells are constructed, to reduce the risk that fracking fluids escape into aquifers and drinking water supplies; and
3. Better assurances that water and chemicals that flow back to the surface after fracking are treated and dispensed with safely.
Despite criticism that these initial requirements were too weak because, for example, they allowed companies to frack first and disclose later, the oil and gas industry fought the rules. As a result, the Department of the Interior first delayed the rules and then, in January 2013, announced they would start the process all over again and re-draft the rules.
Multiple reports show that the Administration rewrote the rules and the oil and gas industry was allowed closed-door access to decision-makers. When the new rules emerged in May 2013, environmental groups saw a weakened version.
Frances Beinecke, President of the Natural Resources Defense Council, reacted to the new draft rules, stating, “Now the Bureau of Land Management has issued woefully inadequate rules for fracking on public lands. The current draft rules are even weaker than a previous draft leaked several months ago, and they read like an industry wish list.”
Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ) observed, “The Interior Department seems to be making the rules weaker, not stronger.”
The letter that Rep. DeFazio and his colleagues sent this past week calls on BLM write a stronger, more effective rule through an “informed and transparent public process.”
They ask the BLM to make three key improvements to the rules:
1. Prohibit open air pits for storage of chemicals and waste. According to House Democrats’ letter, companies should be required to responsibly manage the fluid and flowback of waste without the use of open air pits (the industry uses open air pits to store fluid and flowback of waste prior to the transportation to treatment facilities). “Open air pits threaten soils, groundwater, surface water, and wildlife, and can be a significant source of hazardous and toxic air pollution,” the letter states. Instead of using open air pits companies should use a closed-loop system, allowing the waste to be treated in a way that minimizes human exposure.
2. Pre-disclose the chemicals used in the fracking process, and monitor water quality. The letter asks DOI to have companies disclose the chemicals used before injection in the ground takes place, and have a third-party contractor conduct water quality sampling of all sources within 1,500 feet prior to beginning of the fracking process. Additionally, in the case that the water testing shows pollution occurred within 30 months of completion of the fracking process the operator should be presumed liable for the damage, the letter argues.
The Energy and Commerce Committee found that between 2005 and 2009 the 14 leading oil and gas service companies used more than 780 million gallons of fracking products, not including water, containing 750 different chemicals and other compounds — 29 of which are “known or possible human carcinogens, regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) for their risks to human health, or listed as hazardous air pollutants under the Clean Air Act.”
3. Ensure the integrity of all wells, not ‘type wells.’ To protect aquifers and drinking water supplies, the BLM should better regulate how operators verify the integrity of the wells used in the fracking process. The current BLM-proposed rules allow operators to submit a single permit for a group of wells, instead of conducting oversight of all wells that will be drilled. The letter states, “Not only is it a poor idea to exempt large groups of wells from regulatory oversight, the process for determining whether a group of wells constitutes a type well is not clear in the regulations… We hope DOI reconsiders its inclusion of the type well provision.”
The Department of the Interior will continue to face strong pressure from the oil and gas industry not just to weaken the rules further but to abandon them entirely. How the Administration responds to this pressure, and to the common sense suggestions of Rep. DeFazio and his colleagues, will have implications for the environmental and health risks of fracking for years to come. The Department of the Interior is expected to finalize the fracking rule in 2014.
In the meantime, the oil and gas industry will continue to operate without a national set of regulations — only following the state laws that have been enacted.