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BLM’s new fracking rule a step forward in protecting America’s public lands

The BLM's new federal fracking rule is the first update of the regula tions in 30 years. Image: Judith KohlerThe BLM's new federal fracking rule is the first update of the regula tions in 30 years. Image: Judith Kohler

There’s a saying that when both sides in a debate are angry with you, you must be doing something right.

If that’s the case, then the Bureau of Land Management’s new federal fracking rule must represent a significant improvement over current practice. During a recent House subcommittee hearing, one side railed against the rule as duplicative of state regulations, burdensome and an attack on energy production. The other side called it “absolutely terrible” because it does “absolutely nothing” to protect air and water quality, human health and public lands.

At the witness table, taking criticism from both sides, was BLM Director Neil Kornze. He was defending his agency’s budget request and the new rule before the

House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources. The long-awaited update of 30-year-old regulations was announced in March and grabbed center stage during the subcommittee’s discussion of BLM’s fiscal 2016 budget.

There’s another saying that the truth often lies somewhere in the middle.  And, as Rep. Alan Lowenthal of California noted, the new rule for hydraulic fracturing on federal lands is a modest update of regulations for a technology that has dramatically increased in use and sophistication over the past 10 years.

The changes are intended to ensure that fracking fluids and wastewater are handled safely; well casings are strong enough to stand the high-pressure fluids; and that companies disclose what chemicals they’re shooting into the ground.

Setting a standard

The BLM estimates roughly 90 percent of the wells drilled last year on federal lands were fracked. A baseline standard for fracking is in order for federally managed lands. Those lands are owned by all Americans and are managed for multiple purposes, including energy development, grazing, recreation, hunting and fishing. To lawmakers who insisted that state rules are just as good if not better than federal regulations, Kornze said the BLM is already working on agreements that will make state regulations the standard in those instances. However, about half the 32 states with oil and gas drilling on federal lands don’t have their own fracking regulations.

Does the new rule go far enough? Not according to critics. Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona insists the rule does nothing new despite the outcry from the oil and gas industry and its supporters.  

“This would be like the Department of Transportation issuing a rule saying that every car needed a steering wheel and a brake pedal and having the auto industry scream that’s an overreach,”Grijalva said during the recent hearing.

Critics want monitoring before drilling begins to establish a baseline for groundwater quality. There are also legitimate concerns about relying on the industry-backed FracFocus as the database for tracking what’s in fracking fluids. Last year, an Energy Department advisory board cited flaws in the reporting system and said companies are using the shield of trade secrets.

However, BLM should be supported for taking steps to update its fracking regulations and establishing a standard that companies must meet. And if states already have good regulations in place -- as some insist they do -- and if companies are being responsible and careful -- as they insist they are -- it shouldn't be a problem for them to receive a variance from the BLM and carry on as they have been. Instead, the states of Wyoming and North Dakota and the Western Energy Alliance, a trade group, are threatening lawsuits, claiming the rule will interfere with state regulations and are unnecessary and arbitrary. The pushback likely will grow. 

Members of Congress and state officials need to remember there are a few fundamental things most Americans expect from their government. Protecting the water we drink, the air we breathe and the food we eat is right up there. When oil and gas companies inject a mix of fluids, sand and chemicals under high pressure underground, we have the right to expect that standards are in place to safeguard the health of people, wildlife and public lands. Nothing unnecessary and arbitrary about that. 

About the Author
Judith Kohler

Judith Kohler is the regional communications manager for the National Wildlife Federation in Boulder, Colo. Before joining NWF in 2011, she covered the environment, energy, politics and general news stories for The Associated Press in Colorado and Wyoming.

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