On Friday afternoon, the United States Department of Interior (DOI) released their proposed rules to govern hydraulic fracturing on public lands. Many of us in the environmental community eagerly anticipated the release of these rules because they signal the second clear indication of how the Obama Administration would regulate fracking. The Environmental Protection Agency had earlier released rules related to air emissions from natural gas facilities. Although most fracking regulation occurs at the state level, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management has jurisdiction over an enormous acreage and therefore sets the standard for how the states might approach the issue.
The bottom line: not surprisingly, some of the rules are good, others not so good. In the months leading up to release of these rules, we kept hearing the Interior Department discuss disclosure. Part of the reason for this is simply that disclosure is now noncontroversial. We’ve won that one long ago. On the day of their release, the Department’s major headline once again dealt with disclosure. The problem is that disclosure is perhaps the worst part of the rules. Yeah, the drillers have to disclose the chemicals they use, but only after fracturing is complete. This pretty much completely undermines the purpose of disclosure. If we want to test for water contamination, ‘tis best to know what goes in to the ground beforehand.
DOI did implement some common sense procedures for wellbore integrity. This represents an important first step that should set a regulatory floor for the other gas producing states. This is another one I think the enviros have won. I have had the pleasure of attending a couple of seminars by the American Petroleum Institute (API) featuring drilling engineers singing the praises of their own industry standards and speaking with pride about their ability to maintain the casings, prevent blowouts, and so on. If they are so good at drilling wells, API should embrace tough standards to prevent leaks. And despite the fact no matter what standards we have, wells will fail. Engineers should rise to the challenge to drill safer.
One issue where our community still has some progress to make concerns fracking wastewater disposal. Unfortunately, the DOI proposed rules appear to allow drillers to dump flowback fluids in to pits. These toxic, and sometimes radioactive, fluids should be recycled where possible. Closed loop systems should become the standard because many municipal wastewater treatment facilities are designed to handle human waste, not fracking waste. And even properly lined pits still leak.
Soon, DOI will publish these proposed rules in the Federal Register and solicit public comment. Earthworks will be there. All of us who believe that federal regulation is necessary to protect us against unwilling or inadequate local enforcement should make our voice heard. We are advocates; our job is to push for the best protections available. The industry benefits already from so many exceptions to our cherished environmental laws; our time to respond has come.