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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
(Page 2 of 2 )
U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar

Meanwhile, New York is approaching the end of a contentious, four-year-long process to decide whether to allow high-volume fracking, and Vermont is expected to become the first state to ban fracking entirely.

The BLM rule "stands up quite well next to other state regulations," said Sharp, the Environmental Working Group scientist. "But unfortunately, that's because most state regulations are very poor."

For example, some of the states that regulate fracking don't deal with the wastewater, called flowback, which comes out of the well after it's fracked, Sharp said. Flowback water contains fracking chemicals as well as naturally occurring radionuclides from underground rock formations.

The new BLM rule would require companies to report the volume of flowback water and create a plan for its disposal. They also would have to store the waste in closed tanks or in aboveground pits lined with a plastic barrier.

Sharp said her group is disappointed that the BLM is allowing companies to use disposal pits, because of the potential for leaks and liner degradation. But she acknowledged that lined pits "are a lot better than unlined pits."

The rule also requires operators to keep "cement bond logs"—detailed records of tests that help ensure their wells are properly cemented. After drilling a well, operators pour cement between the metal casing and the surrounding rock to prevent fluids from leaking out. They then test the effectiveness of the cement sealant by running a series of tests and recording the results in the cement bond log.

"It is essentially a way of logging, from top to bottom, what the density on the cement is, so that if you have something that isn't as dense or thick as you need it to be, it tells you that you have a problem," Baizel said.

Not all states require cement bond logs, Baizel said, and he was "happy" to see that requirement in the BLM regulations.

The industry isn't happy about the requirement. Sgamma of Western Energy Alliance said the logs will require "additional reporting and oversight…[It's] another case of the federal government making it more expensive and time-consuming to operate on federal lands, and will continue putting them at a disadvantage" compared with adjacent state and private lands.

The use of cement around well casings is hardly new, said Crandall of the BLM. What's new is the agency requirement that operators submit their cement bond logs. "It's good for the environment, the public and operators. If you're confirming your well is good, essentially the public is confident in our ability to regulate fracking on public lands, and operators are in good shape…it really is a win-win for everyone."

Rule Still Protects Trade Secrets

Like all the existing state regulations, the BLM rule allows operators to avoid disclosing certain chemicals or mixtures of compounds—called products—that are considered trade secrets.

Operators will be required to submit a list of non-proprietary chemicals, along with a separate list of fracking products. Keeping the chemicals and products separate will help prevent the loss of proprietary information, Crandall said.

The disclosed information will be posted on a third-party website such as FracFocus, an industry-funded portal where companies provide voluntary disclosure. Crandall said the BLM intends to work with FracFocus to discuss ways of improving the site.

In addition to the names of chemicals, operators will also disclose the concentration of each chemical as a percentage of the total fracking fluid. Knowing the volume is important, said Sharp, because it can help landowners decide which contaminants to test for. "All other things being even, it's more likely that a chemical in higher concentration in a drilling fluid will become a problem than a chemical with a lower concentration."

Sharp said the BLM's effort to upgrade its regulations will be most helpful in states with little or no fracking oversight. Before drilling on federal land, operators must obtain a state as well as a BLM permit—and if the state rules are lax, the BLM's updated regulations can now help fill the gap. In California, for example, she said operators can frack a well without notifying regulators or landowners, and they aren't required to disclose the chemicals they used or to present a plan for wastewater disposal.

Lawmakers in California are discussing new measures to regulate fracking, but it may be years before the rules are finalized.

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