Is BLM Bowing to Industry Pressure on New Fracking Rules?
Last year the BLM issued a draft rule for well stimulation (including hydraulic fracturing) under federal leases. The original proposal included limited new rules for chemical disclosure, mechanical integrity, and waste water handling.
After it received extensive public comment, the BLM announced it would be going back to the drawing board and developing a new draft for public comment. This new draft was recently leaked to the press. If it’s legitimate, it appears that the BLM has further weakened what was an already weak rule.
The leaked draft contains a number of troubling revisions:
- Replacement of the term “well stimulation” with “hydraulic fracturing.” Proposed rules in the previous version applied to “well stimulation” operations, which included hydraulic fracturing and other techniques like “acidizing,” where the industry injects large quantities of acid down a well. The new version only covers hydraulic fracturing.
- Why do we care? Acidizing can present some of the same risks as hydraulic fracturing and should be regulated similarly. Operators in the Monterey Shale in CA, for example, have experimented with massive acidizing jobs using an extremely hazardous acid called hydrofluoric acid.[i] This activity wouldn’t be regulated under the revised rules.
- The results of tools that are used to tell how effectively drinking water is isolated, called cement evaluation logs, don’t have to be submitted until *after* hydraulic fracturing is performed. Also, the results from one well can be used as a proxy for multiple wells. Under the previous version, operators would have had to submit unique results for each well before fracturing in order to get approval to frac.
- Why do we care? The whole point of cement evaluation logs is to ensure drinking water is protected *before* fracturing begins. If drinking water isn’t properly isolated, the well needs to be fixed before fracturing, but the BLM may not know if there’s a problem until after fracturing has happened – or they may not know at all, if the results submitted are for a different well.
- In the previous version, operators had to submit unique information for each well to get permission to frac – things like the depth at which fracturing will occur, where the water used for fracturing will come from, how much water, how far the fractures are expected to grow, etc. In the revised version, they can submit one packet of generic information and get multiple permits.
- Why do we care? Each fracturing operation is unique and regulators can’t determine if the design is safe and appropriate using generic information.
- See a blog from my colleague, Matt McFeeley, on how the BLM is gutting chemical disclosure requirements.
Furthermore, it appears that the BLM is also failing to make any additional improvements recommended by NRDC and a coalition of other environmental groups. These improvements are necessary to address the full range of environmental and human health risks associated with well stimulation, and include things like setbacks, baseline water testing, and well construction.
Time will tell whether these leaked rules are legitimate. Will the BLM give the industry yet another lollipop to appease their latest temper tantrum or will they fulfill their responsibility to protect our shared public lands?
[i] Rowe, Greg, R. Hurkmans, and Norman Jones. "Unlocking the Monterey Shale Potential at Elk Hills: A Case Study." Paper SPE 86993 presented at the SPE International Thermal Operations and Heavy oil Symposium and Western Regional Meeting, Bakersfield, California. 2004.