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Obama Administration Caves To Fracking Industry in New Proposed Rules

Matthew McFeeley

Posted May 16, 2013 in Health and the Environment, U.S. Law and Policy

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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  This means that rules the Department of the Interior has itself called “outdated” continue to apply to other potentially-dangerous techniques for getting more oil and gas out of a well.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.

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Comments (Add yours)

James A. Singmaster, III, Ph.D.May 17 2013 02:19 AM

All this fracking around would become a dead issue if NRDC starts calling for MAKING THE SUN OUR SOLE ENERGY SOURCE!!!!!!!!!!!!!! THIS CAN BE DONE.
I have sent many NRDC staffers statement on how to do this including many To Pres. F. Beinecke and Chief Scientist P. Lehner. Dr, J,. Singmaster, Fremont, CA

Gerald QuindryMay 17 2013 11:50 AM

I frequently read this blog site with a sigh and shrug. Why bother responding when I spot something that sets off my 'BS Meter' when to do so would required considerable time and effort to support my opinion with facts? First, I don't think an unsupported statement carries any weight, and wouldn't bother. But by the time a proper response is prepared, the initial blog contribution has drifted off the web page to the archives, and the comment would not be read, anyway.

But your first bullet item above makes the job easy and quick.

In your introductory paragraph, you imply a concern for drinking water supplies. In the bullet, you take a slap at acid treatment of oil and gas wells, presumably because this practice would endanger water supplies. Are you aware that acid treatment of water supply wells is a common practice? I mean acid treatment of the actual wells from which drinking water is extracted. See, for example, "Changes in Ground-water Quality Near a Well Undergoing Acid Treatment," by Wojcik and Wieczysty, Ground Water, Volume 24, No. 6, Nov-Dec 1986 which measures the actual water quality in such a well after acid treatment. The findings were quite benign. To infer some justification for regulating the very same practice in oil and gas wells is indeed a stretch.

Similarly, a recent blog by Vignesh Gowrishankar on the NRDC blog site ( http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/vgowrishankar/no_smell_of_gas_-_but_is_that.html ) inferred a particular concern about leaking natural gas pipelines in New York City. It would have taken far too long (time and space) to be effective by posting here. Anybody interested can see http://wmbriggs.com/blog/?p=7876 for details.

My point is, NRDC -- do your homework before posting offhand commentary on technical issues. Lawyers and "Public Policy Advocates" don't know everything, and your sources may have motivation to exaggerate..

judy collinsMay 17 2013 06:30 PM

i am not an expert but am very concerned about the effects of fracking on our wild horses, who are being squeezed out by ranchers as it is. congress supposedly protected our wild mustangs and burros in the 1971 free roaming wild horse and burros act. blm is supposed to manage them sustainably with other uses on our public lands. we now spend $80 million per year on helicopter gathers and holding costs, and there are 50,000 horses in holding!! they are forever separated from their families and the males are castrated. this is appalling and we need to stop the roundups and release the horses back to their rightful lands. the use of pzp is available to keep mares from conceiving for 2 years and there is plentiful land for the horses. fracking causes much damage to the land and water safety and i'm concerned that the acceleration in roundups since 2009 may be directly linked to these activities. thanks for listening and would appreciate feedback.

Hudson Valley ChronicMay 18 2013 09:27 PM

This is one big, inevitable hose job. If you look hard enough, you can see the puppet strings coming out of Obama's back straight up into Cheney's black helicopter hovering over the White House. Part of what the moribund U.S. environmental movement needs -- and in particular the fractured and chronically outclassed anti-fracking movement -- is an angrier soundtrack, not bogged down with musical baggage from old, hippy-dippy environmental campaigns. Here's a new American anthem guaranteed to stir the soul of any red-blooded environmentalist, as well as lure a few emotionally sensitive people over from the dark side. Feel free to use it. Scream your anger!
http://biffthuringer.bandcamp.com/track/to-america

Asha DuncanMay 19 2013 01:00 PM

No more polution!

Michael BerndtsonMay 19 2013 01:06 PM

Gerald Quindry,
I believe the comparison of acid treatments between fracking wells and water supply wells isn't too apt. While both may be used to address biofouling and inorganics precipitants clogging - I believe for hydraulically fractured shale gas wells, acids are also used for fracture enhancement - i.e. to softening up the formation for fracture propagation and whatnot. Or a little salt in the diet is good - a lot of salt in the diet is bad. Acids and biocides used multiple times throughout the life of a gas well in undetermined amounts and of undisclosed composition is no acceptable on public lands. This isn't 1875 anymore and minerals exploitation on federal lands don't exist in unpopulated regions of the country (accept the indigenous peoples).

Gerald QuindryMay 19 2013 06:01 PM

Mr. Berndtson,
We could each speculate on the reason for, and how much, acid treatment of oil and gas wells is occurring, and how dangerous it is (or is not). I certainly have not taken the time to research the question. My point is, Mr. McFeeley does not know, either. But he chose to include it here in his comments and imply that it presents a hazard. This is in spite of the fact that similar practices are common and well documented in drinking water supplies. He implies a hazard that must be regulated. He did not do his homework. Similarly, when Dr. Gownrishankar parroted the press release on methane pipeline leakage in Manhattan, he did not see the obvious lack of scientific rigor in that press release or the underlying reports.
Proverbs 17:28 applies.

Jeff MacklinMay 20 2013 02:23 AM

Why are reasonable reforms blocked?
Welcome to Lester Land...
http://www.ted.com/talks/lawrence_lessig_we_the_people_and_the_republic_we_must_reclaim.html

Matthew McFeeleyMay 31 2013 07:12 PM

A response to Mr. Quindry:
It is true that water wells are sometimes treated with relatively small volumes of acid in order to remove mineral deposits and/or biological material clogging the well. I do not believe this lessens the case for application of the rules to the process of “acidizing” oil and gas wells. The proposed BLM rules would do a few things: require disclosure of chemicals, require a log to show that cement integrity is maintained, and improve the handling of potentially-hazardous wastes. NRDC obviously believes that there are substantial gaps in the rules which need to be addressed, but I would note that there seems to be little justification for exempting processes like acidizing from these types of rules: People have a right to know that potentially hazardous substances are being transported through their communities, stored at a wellsite, and injected into the ground near water sources. Cement integrity is crucial to ensuring that there are no pathways from the well to drinking water sources – so that nothing in the well, whether acid, fracking fluids, or the gas itself, can get into an aquifer. Regardless of whether the wastewater comes from fracking or acidization, it can contain naturally occurring heavy metals like arsenic and mercury and radioactive material, so it should be handled properly.

There are also a couple of major differences worth pointing out between the process of large acid jobs on oil and gas wells and the acidizing of water wells as in the paper you cite.

1. The volume of acid:
The paper cited ( http://bit.ly/11IDIWF ) discusses treatment of a water well with about 168 gallons (690 liters, see p. 725) of relatively dilute acid, most of which is acetic acid (or the main component of vinegar). Oil and gas well acid jobs sometimes use relatively small volumes, but there have been reports that document using up to 330 gallons of acid per foot of wellbore. (See http://bit.ly/11udwc4 ) On long horizontal wells, this could potentially mean hundreds of thousands or even millions of gallons of acid could be used. Because these types of treatments pose similar hazards to hydraulic fracturing, NRDC believes they should be subject to the proposed rules, just as they were in the first proposal the Obama Administration released. (To be clear: I don’t know whether acid jobs on the scale of millions of gallons have actually been undertaken. One obvious reason for this is that there are no requirements that these treatments be disclosed.)

2. Someone who has just treated their well with acid knows to check if the water is safe to drink:
In the report cited, the baseline water quality of the well was tested, and then an acid solution was put in the well for 24 hours and subsequently pumped out. The well was then pumped continuously for multiple days to get rid of the acid and measurements were taken on the pH and other factors to determine whether acid was still present. If someone treats their own well with acid, they can ensure that they do not drink the water until it is safe to do so. If, on the other hand, the acid gets into their well without their knowledge (for instance, through underground migration) they may not have any way of knowing that their water is contaminated, and they may not discover the truth until serious health problems appear. And make no mistake, the chemicals being used in many recent acid jobs in California are not benign – the report I originally cited noted that companies are using large volumes of hydrofluoric acid. According to a safety factsheet from Honeywell, which produces hydrofluoric acid, it has these effects when ingested: “Can cause severe mouth, throat, and stomach burns and may be fatal if swallowed. Even with small amounts of dilute solutions, profound and possibly fatal hypocalcemia (depletion of calcium in body) and systematic toxicity is likely to occur unless medical treatment is promptly initiated.” (See here: http://bit.ly/f1SAQm )

ConservationMattersAug 11 2013 02:43 PM

At the end of the day, humanity's fate is ALL about the OVER-CONSUMPTION of fossil fuels. Yet, America continues to Waste over 70% of the energy it consumes. Our horrendous energy waste is culturally pervasive, flagrant, irresponsible, disgraceful, abominable, sinful, and suicidal !

(1) 100's of millions of lights burn unnecessarily every day and night.
(2) We OverLight, OverHeat, OverCool, and OverDRIVE as if it doesn't matter. Businesses, industry, offices, municipalities, and SCHOOLS are the worst offenders.
(3) Over packaging is the norm, and recycling is inadequate. Our landfills are busier than ever. (Plastics are the cause of most cancers and therefore our most heinous polluter.)
(4) Very few Americans minimize their driving; road congestion is horrendous.
America's incessant obsession with driving and road construction is the ultimate contradiction to sustainable living. Mass transit needs to be made FREE (we subsidize all kinds of 'projects, why not one that helps everybody ! ), SAFE (have Cops ride everywhere needed. They can still be utilized elsewhere when needed.), CLEAN, & CONVENIENT(this is the hard part; requires intelligence.)

(Fracking, Off-shore Drilling, Tar Sands, Nuclear Power; it's OUR own dumb fault.)
Meanwhile, America's hedonist energy WASTE is EVERYWHERE !
The only way to eliminate waste and reduce demand for energy is by using the economic impact of taxing energy. Crude oil must be taxed at $160 per barrel(42 gal) and this 'energy consumption tax' be OFFSET by making Federal Income Tax begin at $60k.
Only with a substantial and tangible dollar$$ consequence / reward will there be the incentive to conserve energy. (let the Hummers and other gas guzzlers pay a fair price for their high energy consumption. Reward the 'Prius drivers, cyclists, walkers, & mass transit riders.)
Solar, Wind, Hydroelectric, and every sustainable 'supply, can only succeed when energy conservation is also utilized. (Only 'our dwindling fossil fuel supply can support the overuse and waste of energy.)
Global warming continues to rapidly increase with our persistent waste and overuse of fossil fuels. Human extinction will be the reward for our failure to quickly and broadly implement renewable energy supplies and genuine conservation.

Michael Knight, PhD Energy Conservation Advocate
--
Walk softly on this Earth; it's the Only one we get.
FREE Alternative Energy Available NOW : CONSERVATION
STOP the/our/your Energy WASTE !

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