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Feds Punt on Leadership Over Fracking Rules, Experts Say

New BLM rule stands up well next to state regulations, says one scientist. "But unfortunately, that's because most state regulations are very poor."

May 15, 2012
U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar

Nearly two years after Wyoming became the first state to regulate high-volume hydraulic fracturing, the federal government is finally taking similar steps to supervise oil and gas drilling on public lands.

Released earlier this month, the proposed rule is now open for public comment. While the regulations it contains are a significant step forward, they've disappointed environmentalists and watchdogs who hoped that the Obama administration would lead by example.

Compared to existing state regulations, the federal rule is in the "middle of the pack," said Bruce Baizel, senior staff attorney at Earthworks, a nonprofit that advocates for responsible oil and gas drilling. "It's not a model leader but it's also not stepping back either."

The proposed rule will require operators to test for leaks, create a plan for managing wastewater and reveal some of the chemicals they use in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Regulating these activities will "ensure the health and safety of the land and the public ... and raise public confidence in hydraulic fracturing," Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman Megan Crandall told InsideClimate News.

Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs for the industry group Western Energy Alliance, said the BLM regulations will "add more delays and cost onto an already excessively bureaucratic federal process."

At least nine states have adopted new fracking regulations in the past two years. The federal rule would affect oil and gas drilling on 700 million acres of mineral resources managed by the BLM. That includes 57 million acres of private "split estate" land, where residents own the surface rights while the BLM controls the mineral resources under ground.

The regulations are similar to those in an earlier version of the rule that was leaked in February except for one major difference: they don't require operators to disclose the chemicals used in fracking until after a well has been fractured. The leaked version would have required disclosure both before and after fracking.

Scientists say pre-drilling disclosure is crucial for two reasons—to track surface spills of chemicals that can leach into groundwater, and to establish a scientific baseline.

Some fracking chemicals are highly toxic, and even minute amounts can lead to health problems. Because water testing is expensive, and fracking fluids can contain hundreds of different chemicals, it's impossible for landowners to test for every potential contaminant, said Renée Sharp, senior scientist and California director of the Environmental Working Group, an organization that focuses on public health and the environment.

Pre-fracking disclosure could help landowners decide which chemicals to test for, she said, but even then, it might be impractical to test for every compound used during fracking.

Without baseline tests, it can be difficult to prove that subsequent contamination was caused by drilling activities, said Baizel, the Earthworks attorney. "It just makes it that much harder for those who are trying to show there's contamination."

Pre-drilling disclosure isn't unprecedented, he added. It's already required in Wyoming, "which is a big producing state, so it's not like they haven't figured it out."

Crandall, the BLM spokeswoman, said disclosure before drilling "is an extra step that is perhaps not necessary, when you're getting the same information post-drilling. The rule was crafted with input from industry, the public and [Native American] tribes. And taking all of that into account, post-disclosure seemed the best choice."

Last week, E&E Publishing, a news service that covers energy and environmental issues, reported that earlier this year White House officials met four times with industry lobbyists and once with environmentalists to discuss the proposed regulations. The issue of pre-drilling disclosure was brought up in at least one of the industry meetings. 

BLM Rules Revision Long Overdue

The BLM's fracking regulations were last revised in 1988, years before the industry began using high volume hydraulic fracturing, where up to millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals are injected underground to extract oil and gas.

The combination of high volume fracking and horizontal drilling has allowed operators to tap tightly bound gas reserves that were once unprofitable. But the industry's rapid expansion has increased concerns about air and water contamination.

On Friday, the Environmental Protection Agency concluded that a potential case of groundwater contamination in Dimock, Pa. didn't require further action. It is also testing the groundwater in Pavillion, Wyo. and conducting a separate study on how fracking affects drinking water.

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