On May 16, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released another draft of their proposed rule on hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas on public lands. BLM manages over 700 million acres of the public’s subsurface minerals mostly in the West and Mountain West states. 57 million of them lie below private land. The problem with this new draft rule is that the stuff we didn’t like in their initial draft is still in there. And parts of it got worse. It appears that BLM have made drilling easier without granting any additional environmental protections. Among this latest version’s shortcomings are expedited permit reviews and broader permit variances.
Expedited Permit Review
The apparent view of BLM is that one well is just as good any other well. If industry gets a permit for one of the wells, then BLM can simply fast track other permit applications for the surrounding ones. In fact, BLM often boasts about how quickly they can approve a drilling permit. Under the new draft, an operator can still submit a sundry notice for a single well. However, where there is a group of wells with similar geological characteristics, notice from a different well that the driller says is nearby will suffice. BLM calls this a “type well”, because I guess it’s typical. The same is true for the cement bond logs drillers keep to maintain mechanical integrity. Rather than requiring companies to demonstrate enough cement surrounds each well to prevent drinking water contamination, the proposal would allow companies to just submit the results from a type well.
The best way to make any rule meaningless is to grant variances. The new BLM proposal allows them discretion to exempt entire states where BLM determines state rules are adequate. This will happen often because these BLM rules are so weak the state rules will win by default. Providing a clear path for the Federal Government to defer to the states will create zones where some areas have protection and others do not. The real problem is state rules are already too weak and state enforcement is even worse.
We told BLM this last time. Closed-loop systems are the way to go now. Everyone knows it. As drilling spreads, handling the huge volumes of waste that comes back up the well is an increasing problem. Where to put it all? We could inject it back underground, but that gets expensive because we are running out of places with the right geology. And then there are the earthquakes. Fortunately, these petroleum engineers are pretty smart and they keep making better and cheaper closed-loop systems everyday. Just like they did with “green completions” by configuring a truck and a tank to a well that captures the methane so less escapes in to the atmosphere. Many Best Management Practices are becoming the common-sense practices that save money, increase efficiency, and protect the environment.
The Natural Gas Subcommittee of the Secretary of Energy’s Scientific Advisory Board already said so. Surely, if it’s good enough for the Energy Department it oughta be good enough for BLM. The main reason drillers even use diesel fuel is that diesel powers some of their equipment, so they already have plenty of it around.
We need to have the federal government take the lead and set a good standard- a proper level below which the industry cannot pollute. The purpose is to encourage states to raise their standards, not just regulate to the lowest common denominator. BLM should allow for flexibility and technological innovations that improve public health and the environment. This does not mean granting variances and expediting the typical well. The latest draft has a 30-day comment period. BLM has another chance to hear from the public and from industry. It’s time to insist that BLM follow the rest of us.