New Federal Fracking Rules Draw Swift Response

The Interior Department’s new regulations are quickly opposed by oil and gas industry groups, but environmental groups say they don’t go far enough.

The Interior Department released rules on March 20, 2015, for oil and gas wells on federal and tribal lands. Credit: Tim Evanston, flickr

The Interior Department released long-awaited rules today for oil and gas wells on federal and tribal lands. Four years in the making, the regulations take aim at the environmental risks of hydraulic fracturing, an extraction technique used on 90 percent of the nation's wells.

The rules, which will go into effect in late June, focus on protecting water quality and wildlife, but do not regulate the industry's effects on climate change. However, the Obama administration is working on a separate set of regulations to address emissions of methane—a powerful greenhouse gas—from oil and gas wells.

Immediate reaction from environmental groups was a mixture of cautious praise and criticism. The oil and gas industry reacted almost instantly with two lawsuits challenging the regulations.

Groundwater protection, well integrity and disclosure of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, are among the areas of focus. The rules require that fracking wastewater be stored in covered tanks instead of open waste pits, though limited exceptions could be made. Operators also will have to disclose the chemicals used during fracking via an internet database. But companies can claim certain compounds as trade secrets, and those chemicals would remain hidden from the public.

The rules would apply only to oil and gas activity on 756 million acres of mineral rights overseen by the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The vast majority of the industry's extraction takes place on private and state lands, and are regulated by a patchwork of state rules.

Despite the limited scope, the order was significant enough to draw strong reactions.

"The BLM fracking rule is a significant improvement over business-as-usual," Lauren Pagel, policy director of the environmental group Earthworks, said in a statement.

Pagel praised the ban on open waste pits and the requirement for companies to test the integrity of every well. But she also criticized the administration for "prioritizing fossil fuel extraction over clean energy development and people's health."

Other green groups condemned the rules for advancing the president's "all of the above" energy policy.

"Our work will continue to truly protect the millions of acres of Federal lands that will remain in harm's way until fracking is halted entirely," Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, said in a statement.

Two industry groups announced they'd filed a lawsuit against the rules less than an hour after they were released.

"These new mandates on hydraulic fracturing by the federal government...are the complete opposite of common-sense," said a statement from Barry Russell, president and CEO of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, one of the two groups behind the lawsuit.

Tim Wigley, President of the Western Energy Alliance, the other group, said in a statement that the federal government should leave regulations up to the states.

In a conference call, Janice Schneider, Interior assistant secretary for land and minerals management, said the BLM has oil and gas operations in 32 states. But only 13 of those states have fracking regulations.

If a state or tribal government can show that its regulations are equal to or stronger than the BLM rules, the BLM will allow enforcement of those rules instead of its own.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said the new rules are long overdue. "Current federal well-drilling regulations are more than 30 years old and they simply have not kept pace with the technical complexities of today's hydraulic fracturing operations," she said in a statement.

Jewell, a former petroleum engineer, said that she had "fracked" wells in the past, but never with the intensity of today's fracking operations.

In modern high-volume hydraulic fracturing, millions of gallons of water are pumped underground along with sand and chemicals to extract tightly-buried oil and gas. This type of fracking is very different from the fracking operations used in the 80's, when BLM's rules were last updated.

"I think at the end of the day, industry certainly recognizes that thoughtful regulation can help them, because it reassures the public that there are rules in place that protect them," Jewell said during the call.

Draft Rules Strengthened

One major difference between today's rules and a draft version released in 2012 is how the BLM will regulate waste pits. After a well is fractured, much of the fracking fluid flows back out of the well, along with naturally-occurring water from the formation that contains heavy metals and other toxins.

The BLM's draft rule would have allowed wastewater to be stored in closed tanks or open pits lined with plastic. The new rules require the fluid to be kept in "rigid enclosed, covered, or netted and screened above-ground tanks." Some "limited" exceptions will be made for lined pits, if the operators can show that tanks are infeasible for environmental or public health reasons.

Like the draft rules, the final rules require companies to disclose the chemicals found in their fracking fluids within 30 days of fracking a well. Environmentalists have criticized the rules for not requiring disclosure before fracking, but Schneider said the agency decided against pre-fracking disclosure because operators often adjust the chemicals they're using as the fracking occurs, so it's hard to predict what chemicals will be injected.

The BLM will allow what it called limited exceptions for trade secrets. Those chemicals won't be reported, but the BLM said it will have access to the information in the event of an emergency. The remaining, non-proprietary chemicals will be logged on FracFocus.org, a website used by many states for their own chemical disclosure rules.

Jewell said the BLM will be represented on the board of FracFocus. The website is run by representatives from state water agencies and the industry. FracFocus has been criticized for its limited functionality, but the site recently announced it will upgrade and improve the site.

Aside from the waste pit restriction, the rules do little to control toxic air emissions that can pose a public health threat. While the regulations acknowledge that many commenters asked for increased air monitoring, the BLM ultimately decided that such actions were "best left to the discretion of the local BLM offices."

In an email, Interior spokeswoman Jessica Kershaw said air emissions are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, not the Interior Department.

InsideClimate News reporter David Hasemyer contributed to this report.

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