Salazar: Feds still tweaking hydraulic fracturing rules

For months, the Obama administration has been preparing to unveil new regulations governing hydraulic fracturing on federal lands, but the mandates are still a work in progress.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Tuesday that the fracturing rule is still being tweaked, months after the proposal was shipped to the Office of Management and Budget for review.

“We are in the process of working through the final details on that,” Salazar said at the National Press Club. The mandates will be unveiled “once we complete the refinement of those rules.”

Salazar said the measure should be out “soon” — the same forecast he has been offering since late last year.

The rule would apply to oil and natural gas extracted from federal leases using the hydraulic fracturing process, which involves pumping water, sand and chemicals deep underground to crack rock formations and unlock the hydrocarbons trapped inside.

The measure would require companies to publicly disclose the chemicals they pump underground. It also would impose new mandates for the design and monitoring of wells, including possible requirements for mechanical integrity tests to confirm the well casing can prevent leaks. And it would establish new requirements for treating water used at the sites.

But regulators may have run into trouble writing standards for monitoring pressure and verifying well casing integrity that are both stringent and nationally applicable. The oil and gas industry, which prefers state-based regulation to federal mandates, has argued that wide geological differences mean that drilling, design and water-management practices in some regions are far different than other parts of the United States.

The administration’s handling of the hydraulic fracturing rule also has angered some American Indian tribes who complain they weren’t fully consulted about the proposal that would affect drilling on their lands. Tribal leaders told the House Natural Resources Committee last week that if the requirements discouraged drilling on their lands, the rule could jeopardize potential oil and gas revenue.

Salazar didn’t reference the controversy Wednesday and insisted that any delay in the long-awaited mandates was because the Interior Department wants “to make sure that the rules are clear and that they are common sense.”

He said the measure was undergoing “legal review and legal changes,” but “we’ll move forward with a common-sense set of rules in the near term.”

In an interview with The Houston Chronicle last month, Salazar said he was confident the rule would be proposed this year.

Some energy analysts have suggested that the appetite for new regulations governing the hydraulic fracturing process that is key to extracting natural gas nationwide could be slipping, especially as the November election nears. After all, the new rule would provide fresh fodder to Republicans who are accusing the Obama administration of creating roadblocks to domestic energy production.

President Barack Obama last week established an interagency task force to coordinate natural gas drilling research and policy.