The US Bureau of Land Management finally got around to posting its final fracking rules in the Federal Register on Friday, and before the ink was dry on the Intertubes, the American Petroleum Institute fired off a statement of objection. However, if you were expecting the nation’s premier fossil fuel lobbying organization to rip into the new rules with long daggers, you’ll be sorely disappointed. The statement was, to put it softly, mild as a pair of nail clippers. What gives?
Locking The Fracking Door After The Gas Escapes
For those of you new to the topic, fracking is short for hydrofracturing. As the name suggests, it refers to the practice of jarring oil and gas loose from shale formations, by shooting a fluid laced with grit, chemicals, and other substances deep underground.
Back in the day, fracking was a relatively uncontroversial drilling method. A primitive form of fracking was in existence in the 19th century, but in the 1940’s it underwent a complete transformation with the help of us taxpayers. That’s when federal researchers (shoutout to Sandia National Laboratory!) developed a high-efficiency drill bit to help kickstart the US geothermal industry.
The new drill turned out to be a bust for geothermal energy, but oil and gas drillers latched onto it and the rest is history. Nobody paid much attention when fracking was confined to thinly populated areas in the western US in the late 20th century, but 21st century oil and gas boom has involved newly discovered shale formations in the more heavily populated northeast, along with enormous growth in the western regions.
American Petroleum Institute: Where’s The Outrage?
Federal fracking rules never caught up with the combination of new technology and boom times, and a Bush-era exemption from federal water safety regulations didn’t help matters much. Until now, issues like water contamination, air pollution, fugitive emissions, and waste disposal have been left to a patchwork of state regulations.
The new new fracking rules still leave things largely up to a patchwork of federal regulations, because they only apply to drilling on federal lands.
That goes a long way toward explaining why the American Petroleum Institute (API) fracking rule response was relatively subdued. API itself points out that even without tighter regulations, onshore natural gas drilling in federal lands has declined an “amazing” 21.6 percent since 2009, leaving most of the oil-and-gas boom in the hands of private property owners and state lands.
According to the Department of the Interior, all together there are currently 100,000-plus active wells (fracked and unfracked) on federal lands, and about 2,500 new wells were drilled on federal lands in fiscal year 2014. That sounds pretty impressive but not when you consider the numbers for private and state lands, which add up to well over a million for fracked wells alone.
API also went out of its way to praise the choice of FracFocus.org as an industry-supported disclosure tool for the ingredients in fracking fluid and fracking wastewater.
The New Fracking Rules
Fracking opponents aren’t exactly pleased that the new rules only cover a fraction of US oil and gas drilling. However, the impact on federal lands (Native American lands included) could be significant, as the Sierra Club points out. That’s because most of the drilling on federal lands currently involves fracking.
Here’s a money quote from the Bureau of Land Management, issued back in May 2013 when the rules were still in the proposal stage:
Approximately 90 percent of wells drilled on Federal and Indian lands use hydraulic fracturing, but the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) current regulations governing hydraulic fracturing operations on public lands are more than 30 years old and were not written to address modern hydraulic fracturing activities.
You can read the whole new fracking rule in the Federal Register, but for those of you on the go here is the Interior Department’s rundown of key provisions:
- Provisions for ensuring the protection of groundwater supplies by requiring a validation of well integrity and strong cement barriers between the wellbore and water zones through which the wellbore passes;
- Increased transparency by requiring companies to publicly disclose chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing to the Bureau of Land Management through the website FracFocus, within 30 days of completing fracturing operations;
- Higher standards for interim storage of recovered waste fluids from hydraulic fracturing to mitigate risks to air, water and wildlife;
- Measures to lower the risk of cross-well contamination with chemicals and fluids used in the fracturing operation, by requiring companies to submit more detailed information on the geology, depth, and location of preexisting wells to afford the BLM an opportunity to better evaluate and manage unique site characteristics.
Oil and gas drillers have 90 days to comply. We’re guessing that given the general freefall in oil onshore drilling in the US, we’ll see a slowdown in oil and gas activity even without the new rule. Now at least they’ll have a government scapegoat to blame.
On the other hand, if the push for more oil and gas exports is successful, interest in federal lands is bound to pick up, new rule or no. According to BLM, compliance is expected to add only one-fourth of one percent to drilling costs.
Image credit (screenshot): Courtesy of US EPA.