Obama Administration Caves To Fracking Industry in New Proposed Rules
This afternoon, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released new proposed rules to govern fracking on publicly owned lands managed by the federal government. This includes wild places like National Forests and National Wildlife Refuges. But it also includes places that supply drinking water to millions of Americans – from larger municipal supplies like that of Washington, D.C., to private water wells (in cases where the federal government owns rights to the minerals below the surface of a homeowners’ property).
The new proposed rules are a significant step backwards even from the weak proposal the Administration released in May of 2012, and, if enacted, will allow fracking to continue to pose unacceptable risks to the environment and public health.
The new proposal is weaker than the previous proposal in a number of ways:
- Rather than covering all well stimulation techniques (like, say, flooding a well with massive amounts of acid, which is currently occurring in California), the rule would only cover fracking. This means that rules the Department of the Interior has itself called “outdated” continue to apply to other potentially-dangerous techniques for getting more oil and gas out of a well.
- Rather than requiring companies to submit information that shows that there is enough cement around each well to ensure that drinking water is protected, the proposal would allow companies to submit the results from another well that the company says is similar. And this information can now be submitted after fracking. Meaning the BLM can’t stop the fracking from occurring if it sees problems with the cement test, and it may not even get the results of the cement from the well that’s being fracked.
- It would allow companies to keep information (like what chemicals they’re using near drinking water supplies) confidential by labeling it a “trade secret” without oversight, and without providing the information to the BLM. If adopted, these disclosure rules would be much weaker than the rules in industry-friendly states like Wyoming and Pennsylvania. Both states at least make companies submit trade secret information so that the validity of companies’ claims that information is proprietary can be evaluated. Letting industry decide what’s confidential is like counting on industry to obey an “honor system,” despite reason after reason not to trust them to do so.
- Rather than using a government website to provide information on the chemicals being used, companies could disclose information on FracFocus.org, an industry-funded website which restricts access to data and is not subject to federal freedom of information requirements. A Harvard study recently said that the use of FracFocus as a regulatory tool has “serious flaws.”
- The new proposal allows BLM discretion to exempt whole states from the already-limited provisions of the new rules if the BLM determines that a state’s rules are adequate. Unfortunately, states’ enforcement of rules on oil and gas drilling and fracking has often been shown to be lacking, and not a single state has sufficient rules on the books to protect public health and the environment.
Unfortunately, there were already a number of problems with the previous proposal, none of which have been addressed by the Administration in this new rule, including:
- Pre-fracking chemical disclosure: The proposal would only require disclosure of the chemicals used in fracking after the fact. But this prevents landowners from testing their groundwater for the chemicals to be used prior to fracking so that they can know whether fracking was a cause of water contamination.
- Putting sensitive areas off-limits: Some places are simply too environmentally sensitive for drilling and fracking, including places like wilderness areas, large sources of drinking water, and others. BLM should put these sensitive lands off limits to drilling and fracking. In addition, BLM should prevent drilling and fracking from occurring in close proximity to places like schools, homes, and water wells, where it poses especially high risks to health.
- Banning dangerous wastewater pits: One of the most serious sources of risks related to fracking are the pits in which frackers store wastewater from the frack job. This waste can contain dangerous fracking chemicals, toxic heavy metals like mercury, and radioactive materials that come up from underground. Pits have often overflowed and leaked—threatening contamination to drinking water supplies, area waterways and more—and also contribute to air pollution. BLM should ban this practice altogether and require closed-loop systems for dealing with wastewater instead.
For more information on the other problems with the original rule, see my colleague Briana Mordick’s blog, here.
The Administration must do better. These proposed rules put the drinking water of millions at risk, allow the industry free reign to keep secrets, and leave outdated well construction rules in place. The American public deserves better than rules that risk our most treasured places, our environment, and our health.