After making concessions to the oil industry, the Obama administration unveiled a new plan to tighten standards for drilling on public lands and force companies to reveal the chemicals they use in the process.
Although it could be the first major federal rule governing the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, process that is unlocking vast domestic oil and gas reserves, the measure would apply only on the small sliver of U.S. land under the Interior Department’s control.
Rewritten in response to a flood of criticism from environmentalists and the oil industry, predictably the new proposal left both groups unsatisfied. Conservationists said it doesn’t go far enough to protect drinking water near drilling sites, and industry officials said the mandates could hike costs and cause delays in drilling.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell cast the proposed rule as a pragmatic approach to protecting environment and public health while allowing oil and gas development on federal lands.
“We are proposing some common-sense updates that increase safety while also providing flexibility and facilitating coordination with states and tribes,” Jewell said. “As we continue to offer millions of acres of America’s public lands for oil and gas development, it is important that the public has full confidence that the right safety and environmental protections are in place.”
The measure would set new standards for the integrity of wells to ensure groundwater is isolated from fluids pumped underground and any hydrocarbons flowing at the sites. Companies must also have water management plans for handling the fluids that flow back to the surface, in response to concerns the material can end up contaminated with naturally occurring radioactive substances found underground.
In a concession to oil and gas companies, the Bureau of Land Management would require the firms to reveal the chemicals they pump underground at well sites only after the work occurs and would accept disclosures via the industry-backed website FracFocus, rather than a new, government-run system.
That follows the lead of Texas, Colorado and other states, which have deemed FracFocus the registry of choice for disclosing chemicals used in fracking, the process of pumping sand, water and other substances underground to open the pores of dense rock and release hydrocarbons trapped inside.
The proposed rule also would allow oil and gas companies to continue to make trade secrets claims, in an approach modeled after the one adopted by state regulators in Colorado.
But environmentalists said the approach is tantamount to letting the fox guard the henhouse. Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said the administration is “putting the American public’s health and well being at risk, while continuing to give polluters a free ride.”
The rule unveiled Thursday is a complete rewrite of an initiative the Bureau of Land Management first proposed a year ago. After receiving nearly 200,000 comments, the agency scrapped the initial proposal in January and went back to the drawing board.
In response to industry criticism, the measure proposed would require oil and gas companies to isolate wells from underground sources of usable water as determined by state regulators and tribal authorities. By contrast, the proposal issued a year ago would have applied even to small, already contaminated pockets of water underground, potentially forcing companies to install far more surface casing than would be necessary to protect true drinking water supplies.
The newly proposed rule also would allow the Bureau of Land Management to effectively waive all of the mandate’s requirements in certain states or tribal regions if the agency determines they meet or exceed the new federal standards. Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the bureau would be able to make those exceptions without first accepting public comment on the wisdom of the decision.
Existing regulations governing hydraulic fracturing operations on public lands are more than three decades old — written well before the technique combined with horizontal drilling to allow companies to tap previously unrecoverable oil and gas supplies. Now, roughly 90 percent of wells drilled on federal and Indian lands use hydraulic fracturing.