Fracking rules an improvement but could be better

May 4, 2012

Fracking disclosure and master leasing plans critical to balanced management approach

A proposal announced by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will improve key safety issues with hydraulic fracturing, but leaves communities in the dark about toxic chemicals in “fracking” fluids.

The new rules could have provided better information to the public about the toxic chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing operations conducted on thousands of drilling sites on western public lands every year. However, the proposal does not require disclosure until after a well is “fracked.” As a result, residents of western communities near wells on federal lands may not know whether they are at risk from toxic contamination.

“With more than 90% of natural gas wells using hydraulic fracturing technologies, the public is entitled to know what kind of chemicals are going into and coming out of the ground as the oil and gas industry seeks out more and more areas for drilling,” said Dave Alberswerth, senior policy advisor at The Wilderness Society. “This new rule inexplicably shields that information from the public until after the fracturing is completed.  It’s perplexing -- Why not require the disclosure of these chemical substances and their volumes up front – before the operations take place?”

The new rules do include improved safety requirements in several key areas.  In particular, the rules require that there are appropriate plans to dispose of fracking fluids that come back up from a well that is hydraulically fractured.  Uniform well construction standards will also help ensure that public lands and waters are safe from fracking contamination.

The Wilderness Society has been urging a policy of “doing it right” when it comes to oil and gas drilling on public lands.  Doing it right in places like Rio Blanco County, CO is imperative. The BLM’s White River Field Office in Rio Blanco County oversees millions of acres leased for oil and gas drilling in the White River region of Northwestern Colorado. The White River is also home to world class trout fishing and the area hosts high quality big game species that draw people to the region from around the country for an unparalleled hunting experience. At the same time, this part of the Piceance Basin has sought-after oil and gas resources, with tens of thousands of new wells expected over the next 20 years.

“Rio Blanco County is an example of communities across the West that benefit from figuring out how we develop oil and gas before we move forward and see irreparable damage to water, wildlife habitat and outdoor opportunities,” said Soren Jespersen, Northwest Colorado wildlands coordinator at The Wilderness Society. “Now is the time to get it right. We can continue to see Colorado be a leader in backcountry recreation, with billions of dollars flowing into the West from those who love to fish and hunt on our lands, by looking at the region in a broader scale and driving development to less sensitive lands.”

Conservation groups like The Wilderness Society have encouraged the BLM to not only take a look at what drillers are putting into the ground, but also to adopt Master Leasing Plans in the region that would give the agency a way to plan where, when and how oil and gas development occurs while also protecting the area’s important wilderness, wildlife and water. Regulation of hydraulic fracturing will provide another important piece in this vision for planning ahead and doing it right.

“Part of Doing it Right is closing the loopholes in federal laws protecting drinking water and surface water quality to ensure public disclosure of chemical compounds used in drilling is required,” said Alberswerth. “Disclosure is one piece of the puzzle. We also need to see the agencies responsible for managing our lands taking a smarter approach to development that includes looking at the broader landscape when making leasing decisions, not one parcel and lease sale at a time.”