Interior chief defends Obama’s plan to stiffen drilling rules

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on Wednesday defended the Obama administration’s plans to stiffen requirements for oil and gas wells drilled on federal lands, saying it was important to establish baseline standards that apply nationwide.

At issue is a proposed rule from the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management that aims to boost the integrity of oil and gas wells to prevent contamination, would force companies to disclose the chemicals they pump underground and would make drillers adopt plans for managing water at the sites.

Oil industry representatives and their allies on Capitol Hill say states are better equipped to regulate the activity.

“The states are already doing a good job,” said Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., during a House Natural Resources Committee hearing on Wednesday. “Why not let the states — who know their own hydrology and geology better — do their own regulation, rather than a bureaucratic fiat from Washington?”

But Jewell would not be swayed.

“As an engineer, I understand fracking,” she told the panel. “I understand there are baseline standards that apply no matter the geology.”

The proposed rule would apply only on public lands managed by the Interior Department — a small sliver of the U.S. — but could set a regulatory model for states. The measure also would effectively update Interior Department requirements that haven’t gotten a rewrite in decades, well before energy companies began combining horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing to pull oil and gas out of dense rock formations.

“Technologies have moved us: horizontal drilling, multiple fractures within a reservoir, much higher pressures than we saw before,” Jewell said. “Minimum acceptable standards need to be out there. Part of my job is to make sure we’re watching over the federal estate effectively.”

But Jewell repeatedly stressed that federal regulators intend to defer to states who have established equivalent — or better — requirements. She cited Colorado and Wyoming as doing a particularly “nice job” regulating hydraulic fracturing and drilling activity.

“In many cases, the standards don’t exist or are very old within states, so we felt they needed to be modernized on federal lands,” Jewell said. But for states with strong regulatory regimes, Jewell added, “we will be working to accommodate those.”

Democratic lawmakers criticized the Interior Department’s decision to allow oil and gas companies to reveal the chemicals they pump underground at well sites only after the work is done and accept disclosures via an industry-backed website known as FracFocus, rather than a new, government-run system.

Critics say there are questions about how long FracFocus might retain data, given that it is a non-public entity. Since it’s not a government website, FracFocus also doesn’t abide by the same public records requirements. They also have complained that the registry is incomplete and is too opaque.

Jewell acknowledged that FracFocus is “imperfect,” but noted that it is being updated in response to criticism.

The BLM’s fracturing rule proposal would allow the government to ask companies for proprietary information that might otherwise be shielded from view as a trade secret.

A public comment period on the proposal has been extended until Aug. 23. Afterward, the BLM is expected to review the comments before issuing a final rule.

Of course, that isn’t preordained. Although the Bureau of Land Management proposed a similar regulation last year, the agency withdrew it after a flood of critical responses.