Industry, conservationists split on BLM rule proposal at comment deadline

The Wilderness Society this week submitted formal comments urging the agency to take additional steps, such as "requiring pre- and post-fracturing water monitoring, pre-fracturing notice of chemical constituents, [and] measures to reduce flaring"

E&E News - Scott Streater

The oil and gas industry and national environmental groups continue to weigh in strongly for and against the Bureau of Land Management's proposed rule on hydraulic fracturing and its potential impacts on domestic energy production and natural resources.

BLM's proposed rule would require disclosure of the chemicals injected underground during hydraulic fracturing and set tougher standards for demonstrating well bore integrity and management of flowback water. Among other things, the proposed rule is designed to address concerns about potential water contamination from the fracturing process, which involves injecting water, sand and chemicals underground at high pressure to create fissures in tight rock formations, allowing oil and gas to flow to the surface.

The public comment period for the draft rule, first unveiled in May, ends tomorrow.

With that deadline looming, the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) and the Denver-based Western Energy Alliance submitted formal comments mirroring those of Republican congressional leaders who are opposed to the federal rule because they say states are better positioned to regulate fracturing.

"This rule undercuts states' authority to regulate energy production, a realm in which they have been successful for decades," said IPAA President and CEO Barry Russell in a statement. "Our federal system has vested the states with the authority to ensure that development of energy sources is safe and responsible. Together with state regulators and local environmental groups, the U.S. oil and natural gas industry has secured the great benefits of the shale revolution, while protecting the environment and strengthening local communities. DOI should not be in the business of undermining this progress."

All that progress could be undermined because adding another layer of red tape to an already complicated permitting process could discourage energy development on public lands in the West, said Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs for the Western Energy Alliance.

The alliance last month commissioned a study that found BLM's proposal to more tightly regulate fracturing on public lands would cost society $346 million annually, or greater than 15 times more than what the agency estimated the rule would cost when it released its draft rule (Greenwire, July 22).

"The Interior Department cannot point to a single instance of an environmental problem from hydraulic fracturing," Sgamma said. "DOI cannot demonstrate that states are not adequately regulating or that federal regulation is more effective."

Meanwhile, environmental groups are lobbying Interior and BLM to move forward with the proposed rule, and some are calling on the agency to make some significant changes to strengthen the regulations.

The Wilderness Society this week submitted formal comments urging the agency to take additional steps, such as "requiring pre- and post-fracturing water monitoring, pre-fracturing notice of chemical constituents, measures to reduce flaring, the use of enclosed tanks for storing fracturing fluids, and proper well abandonment and remediation."

"The increase in the use of hydraulic fracturing means that there needs to be meaningful rules governing its use on federal lands," Lois Epstein, the Wilderness Society's Arctic program director, said today in a statement. "The current draft rules from the BLM are a good start, but should be strengthened in order to guarantee the highest possible protections for the public and nearby wildlands."

Environment America, claiming to speak alongside more than half a million Americans, called on BLM to use the rules on fracturing to take steps to keep oil and gas drilling out of national forests and away from being sited near national parks.

"The ugly reality is that the oil and gas industry has gotten very used to operating on our public lands with few safeguards in place," said Trip Van Noppen, president of Earthjustice.

Van Noppen called BLM's proposal "weak rules" that won't result in any meaningful protections.

One source of contention among the environmental groups appears to be BLM's decision to alter rules first proposed last year in favor of a new draft rule released in May that would allow the agency to defer to state drilling rules if they are found to be as strong as or stronger than the federal rules.

"The Obama administration had the chance to lead," said Jennifer Krill, the executive director of EarthWorks. "Instead, despite overwhelming public input urging stronger oversight or an outright ban on fracking, the Bureau of Land Management caved to industry lobbying and made the rules weaker. President Obama, listen to the public this time and protect our land, air and water."