The Obama administration on Thursday unveiled a new proposal for its first major regulation of hydraulic fracturing on public lands, attempting to address at least a portion of the controversial drilling practice that’s unlocked vast new supplies of U.S. oil and gas but has also raised fears about its environmental impact, particularly on local water supplies.
The proposal is softer on energy producers than an initial draft floated by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management last year. Over the past several months, oil and gas executives—including lobbyists for ExxonMobil, Halliburton, and the American Petroleum Institute—have met several times with administration officials, asking them to loosen the rule.
Environmentalists immediately slammed the proposal, saying that it gives far too many concessions to the industry and won’t protect communities from possible contamination of water tables.
“These rules protect industry, not people. They are riddled with gaping holes that endanger clean, safe drinking water supplies for millions of Americans nationwide,” said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Oil and gas companies were more muted in their responses. The industry maintains that any federal rules on hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking,” represent an onerous, unnecessary layer of oversight that will slow down energy development and place costly burdens on producers. But the companies did grudgingly acknowledge that, while being forced to accept a new regulation, they got a lot of what they asked for in their recent meetings.
“States have led the way in regulating hydraulic fracturing operations while protecting communities and the environment for decades,” said Erik Milito, director of upstream and industry operations for the API, the industry’s lobbying arm. “While changes to the proposed rule attempt to better acknowledge the state role, BLM has yet to answer the question why BLM is moving forward with these requirements in the first place.”
In a conference call with reporters, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said she expected the rules to come under attack from both sides.
“You’re going to hear that we caved to industry,” she said. “But we are taking reasonable steps to make sure fracking is being done safely on our public lands.”
Jewell, a former engineer with Mobil Oil before it merged with Exxon, said that fracking has been done safely for decades, but recent advances in the technology that have led to the new boom in oil and gas development necessitate another level of regulation.
“Despite the advances in technology that have been made, we continue to use regulations that date back to the Sony stereo and the Atari video game,” she said.
The proposed rule is still a draft that will be open to public comment for 30 days; after that, officials may further tweak the regulation.
“We want more public comments,” said Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes. “The stakes are high. We want to get this right.”
The regulation is aimed chiefly at protecting water supplies in communities around fracking wells. The process of fracking requires injecting a cocktail of water and chemicals into the ground, but environmentalists complain that communities don’t know what’s in those chemical mixes, leading to fear that if they made their way into water tables they could contaminate water supplies.
A draft rule issued last year required that companies fully disclose the mix of chemicals used in fracking a well, but companies have complained that doing so would force them to reveal trade secrets. The new rule requires companies only to disclose chemicals that won’t cause them to compromise their proprietary blends. In another concession to industry, the new rule will allow companies to use a website with industry ties, FracFocus.com, to disclose the chemicals, rather than posting them on a government website.
In a blog post responding to the new rules, scholars at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, wrote, “The public must have access to full information on where fracking is occurring, and what substances are being used, through a government-run website, not one that is industry supported. The FracFocus website managed by an Oklahoma non-profit with industry ties has numerous flaws. It doesn’t collect and publish some of the information that individual states require be disclosed, and it is very difficult for users of the site to aggregate and analyze information.”
And a Harvard Law School report issued last month concluded that FracFocus has several flaws—it found that the website does not include some state-required data, and that companies could too easily conceal the contents of many of its chemical blends under the “trade secrets” category.