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Why we need a fracking moratorium on public lands

Amy Mall

Posted November 14, 2013

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Last week we got one of our first glimpses into what U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell thinks about fracking – and it wasn’t promising. Her viewpoint on this topic is important because she is overseeing the development of new rules for the controversial oil and gas extraction process for public lands. Unfortunately, she essentially called it safe, saying: "I think that there's a lot of misinformation about fracking. I think that it's part of the industry's job to make sure that the public understands what it is, how it's done, and why it’s safe.”

While the Interior Department has made tremendous strides in the last few years in adopting new tools to help develop renewable energy on federal lands in a more environmentally sustainable manner, it has not been as responsible in its approach to oil and gas development. We need Secretary Jewell to break that pattern – not to gloss over the very real threats that fracking poses to public health and the environment.  

So far, the agency has been headed in the wrong direction. The latest proposed rules (issued by the Bureau of Land Management, which is housed in the Interior Department) are much too weak to protect communities, public lands and wildlife habitat, and drinking water sources from the risks of fracking. Among other things, they would allow fracking companies to decide what chemicals to keep secret, allow waste to be stored in risky open air pits that can leak toxic contaminants, and wouldn’t require enough information from frackers to ensure that drinking water sources are protected before fracking begins.

That’s why we’re urging the administration to immediately place a moratorium on fracking on public lands. A moratorium is essential to protect communities, drinking water sources, and our natural resources from the uncontrolled fracking dangers of polluted air, toxic waste, contaminated water, and more. Many people may not realize that what happens on federal lands not only impacts some of America’s most treasured landscapes and wild places–like lands near Grand Teton and Glacier National Parks—but the health and safety of millions of Americans nationwide. Public lands are home to drinking water sources for millions, from large municipal supplies like those for Washington, D.C. and Denver, to private wells in situations where the government owns the rights to minerals below a homeowner’s property. In total, these rules impact an area of land more than seven times the size of California.

More details on what’s at stake unless the administration places a moratorium on fracking on public lands:

  • Neighboring Communities: Communities like the North Fork Valley in Colorado; Aztec, New Mexico; and New Cuyama, California are surrounded by public lands and extensive oil and gas development.

The North Fork Valley includes federal lands in the midst of Colorado’s highest concentration of organic and sustainable farms. Industry wants to frack in an area that includes all of this agricultural community’s water sources. New Cuyama, California, a small farming community that relies primarily on wells for water, is close to oil wells in the Los Padres National Forest. Aztec, New Mexico, is ringed by natural gas wells, and residents have reported concerns about health symptoms related to air pollution.

  • Community drinking water sources: Communities across the country rely on public lands as their source of clean drinking water.

In New Mexico, oil and gas development including fracking has been proposed on land adjacent to the Navajo Reservoir, which is a crucial source of water for drinking and irrigation in this arid region and is also a popular site for camping, boating, and fishing. Fillmore, California is immediately downstream of the Sespe Oil Field in the Los Padres National Forest. In Colorado, fracking has been proposed in the South Park area, where three reservoirs in the area provide water to Denver and 15 other nearby cities, as well as world class fishing and wildlife opportunities. In Virginia, industry wants to frack in the George Washington National Forest, home to the headwaters of the Potomac and James Rivers. The waters in this forest feed the drinking water supplies for approximately four million people, including all of Washington, D.C., northern Virginia, and Richmond, and more than 260,000 residents of the Shenandoah Valley.

  • Private homes and water wells: Many Americans are in so-called “split-estate” situations, where the federal government owns the rights to the minerals below the surface of private property.

In this situation, the oil and gas rights take precedence over the surface owner's rights, meaning that drilling and fracking can occur right in someone's backyard, or on their ranch, without the landowner’s consent—and generally without any financial benefit to them. The BLM currently allows fracking on split estate lands in residential and agricultural areas, as well as on public wildlands.

In total, 55-60 million acres in the United States are split estate where federally-owned mineral rights lie beneath private surface. Most of this split estate land is in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, and North Dakota.

For an example of just how problematic this can be -- in Pavillion, Wyoming, where there is split estate oil and gas development, U.S. EPA water testing in 2009 identified contamination in 11 water wells, including methane, toxic chemicals that are found in drilling and fracking fluids, and volatile organic compounds. In 2011, EPA concluded that "the data indicates likely impact to ground water that can be explained by hydraulic fracturing." Unfortunately EPA dropped its investigation, but the State of Wyoming says it will follow up. In North Dakota, ranches above federal minerals, near national grasslands, have also reported wastewater spills and other harms.

  • Our national heritage: Public lands are home to some of the country's last wild places – and magnificent (sometimes threatened) wildlife. Take for example, Colorado’s White River National Forest in the heart of the Rockies -- home to Canada lynx, bighorn sheep and the biggest elk herd in the world. Or California’s Los Padres National Forest, a beach-to-mountaintop wildland that spans five counties, boasts 300 miles of rugged Big Sur hiking trails and gives refuge to more than 400 wildlife species, including the California condor. Also in peril: New Mexico’s Otero Mesa, one of the largest wild desert grasslands left in America . . . whole swaths of Monterey County in central California . . . and the Little Missouri National Grasslands in North Dakota, which surround Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

For months, NRDC has tried to work with the BLM to strengthen its rules. But these enormous gaps in safety remain. That’s why we’re urging the administration to put a fracking moratorium in place on all public lands to safeguard our natural heritage, protect clean drinking water for millions and shield communities across the country.

Rather than continuing to look to fossil fuels, the agency should be scaling up clean, renewable energy development. By boosting wind and solar energy on our public lands--in a way that’s sensitive to the surrounding environment--we can help keep the air and water clean on our nation’s federal land and combat threats from a changing climate. That’s the direction our entire country must be moving.

You can send your own message urging the Obama administration to protect our public lands from fracking and move our nation beyond all fossil fuels by clicking on this link.

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Michael BerndtsonNov 14 2013 05:45 PM

"I think that there's a lot of misinformation about fracking. I think that it's part of the industry's job to make sure that the public understands what it is, how it's done, and why it’s safe.” - Sally Jewell.

That could not have been said better by O&G PR flack. She probably has no idea how to gauge environmental impacts caused by oil and gas development. Just because she has a background as a mechanical engineer working in oil and gas and executive at REI means absolutely nothing to me. If she says that tensile/compressive strength of well casings are misunderstood by the public, maybe I'll believe her.

Apparently she isn't listening to USGS (under her leadership) and US EPA. Stuff like rogue fractures, worst practices, waste disposal and fugitive emissions are a concern of theirs. Apparently not hers and her buddies in industry. Us regular folks just need better learn'n materials I guess.

Sorry to vent here, but this DOI pick is emblematic of the Obama administration. She seems progressive and maybe an environmentalists - due to her weathered outdoorsy look and love of Patagonia winter wear - but really she's not. At best she's one of those environmental capitalists, who are more pernicious for our environment than a straight talk'n Texas oilman. Maybe I'm wrong and I have to take back that mean statement. The proof will be in the permitting.

Michael BerndtsonNov 15 2013 10:55 AM

All right, instead of just being a complainer here's a suggestion. Sally Jewell as the head of DOI is the agent tasked to manage lands held by the federal government. The role has traditionally been centered around natural resource exploitation on federal lands, i.e. James Watt of the Reagan administration and the still applicable 1872 mining law.

Sally Jewell seems to be inline with Obama on "all the above" and may not want to get between exploitation and state agencies. Also she apparently thinks fracking is misunderstood by many. Instead of using tax dollars to develop yet another pro shale oil and gas PR campaign, why not do some good old fashion pre development site characterization and pilot testing before federal lands exploitation. Paid for by developers. I believe Amy or someone else with NRDC has suggested something like this already.

Here's a good place to start. It's the USGS's comments to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation draft supplemental generic environmental impact statement (draft SGEIS)

Continuing on with a suggestion from the peanut gallery. If DOI (Obama administration) plans to move forward with fracking on federal lands regardless of environmental concerns, they should at a minimum require a developer to perform site specific subsurface characterization. This would be actual field data and assessment. Not a literature search pursuant to a generic EIS or something. On top of that, DOI should perform a fully integrated pilot study on fracking at an already developed field near proposed federal lands. Chiefly at sites where the shale depth is relatively shallow (6,000 feet or less). Western lands tend to have deep aquifers so this issue is more important. A study done by USGS not some org like EDF or the state agent.

The principal issue I have (among others) is vertical fracture migration or "rogue" fractures. This issue has only been looked at statistically (or rule of thumbed) from an environmental protection perspective. Data is available from microseismic studies that O&G will do. I'm not sure if it's public. Rogue fracturing is site specific and shouldn't be guessed or not worried about. There's other things to worry about concerning fracking - but rogue fractures could become pathways for migration that may or may not be pluggable during abandonment.

So regardless of federal oversight or regulation, the feds are owners of this land and they have the right to say "hey, you want to frack on our land and you say fracking is safe, prove it."

In short, we need to do something like the EU may require for subsurface characterization before fracking:

I believe it's to lend comfort for German beer >>>>>>>>> shale oil and gas

Amy MallNov 15 2013 03:31 PM

Hi Michael: Thanks for your thoughtful comments. We agree with you completely; in our comments to BLM we have asked the agency to require baseline water testing as well as subsurface characterization. The Underground Injection Control program of the Safe Drinking Water Act recognizes the need for this approach to address known risks, but as you know fracking is exempt from regulations under that program.

DENCONov 18 2013 02:55 PM

Amy, If industry supported a list of aggressive new regulations would the NRDC forgo its talk of frac bans.

Amy MallNov 19 2013 04:06 PM

Hi DENCO: Thanks for the comment. We are calling for a moratorium on public lands unless and until we see sufficient safeguards on the law books that protect our drinking water, air, communities and landscapes.

Comments are closed for this post.


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