Lawmaker urges Interior to stick with tough drilling rule

A top Senate Democrat on Thursday told federal regulators not to shy away from tough requirements in a rule being drafted to tighten standards for drilling on public lands.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., gave his advice in a letter to top environmental officials in the Obama administration, as it reviews a new drilling proposal. In response to criticism from both the oil industry and environmentalists, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management decided last month to scrap its 2012 proposed rule and write a new one.

The measure is set to be the first major federal rule governing the hydraulic fracturing process that is credited with unlocking oil and gas supplies nationwide. The process involves pumping a mix of sand, chemicals and water underground to free hydrocarbons trapped in dense rock formations.

The measure unveiled last May would have forced energy companies to reveal the chemicals they use when drilling for oil and natural gas on federal lands, but in a move that riled environmentalists, the Interior Department decided to require those disclosures only after the substances are pumped underground. The proposed rule also would have imposed new standards for the construction of wells, testing requirements and mandates for managing and storing water that flows back after fracturing begins.

Wyden, who heads the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, urged the administration not to back away from public disclosure and new well integrity standards.

“A properly constructed rule with sound requirements for public disclosure, well integrity and monitoring will set a standard that both state and international governments can look to as a model for developing oil and gas resources in an environmentally responsible way,” Wyden wrote.

Wyden told the administration he hopes the new proposal will ensure “protection of public health and environment” whenever oil and gas is produced on public lands.

“Production of oil and gas resources from our public lands is of great importance to our nation’s energy supply,” he noted. “At the same time, residents of neighboring communities must have confidence that the water they drink and the air they breathe will be free of harmful pollutants.”

Because of Wyden’s stature in the Senate, his voice could add some support to any move by the administration to toughen the mandates beyond what was proposed last year. Some oil industry lobbyists are bracing for a stricter proposal, with pre-disclosure of chemicals.

It is unclear how much the proposal could change, but it appears likely the new draft rule will still include some kind of chemical disclosure, well-bore integrity assurances and plans for managing flowback water.

The Bureau of Land Management is using more than 170,000 public comments to guide the rewrite.

Industry trade groups had asked the administration to reconsider the rule after warning that compliance costs could discourage energy production on federal lands.

Environmentalists meanwhile complained that it was too weak and urged the Interior Department to tighten the disclosure requirements.

The regulation would only cover a sliver of the United States’ onshore oil and natural gas production _ roughly 6 and 13 percent respectively, according to ClearView Energy Partners _ but industry officials fear it could provide the foundation and justification for broader mandates in the future. The oil and gas industry has generally argued that state regulators are best positioned to oversee drilling.