Proposed fracturing rules draw dueling commentary

Voices on all sides of the debate over hydraulic fracturing are weighing in on new federal mandates proposed for the drilling technology, with industry leaders saying the rules are unnecessary and costly while environmentalists say they don’t go far enough.

More than 100,000 public comments had been filed on the Bureau of Land Management’s proposed rule by Thursday afternoon, ahead of a Friday deadline.

Although it would apply only on public land under the Interior Department’s control, the proposal would be the first major federal rule governing the hydraulic fracturing technology now being used to harvest natural gas and oil across the United States.

Interior Department rules governing the process haven’t been updated substantively since they first were promulgated three decades ago, even though 90 percent of wells drilled on federal and Native American lands now use hydraulic fracturing.

“The increase in the use of hydraulic fracturing means that there need to be meaningful rules governing its use on federal lands,” said Lois Epstein, a licensed engineer who directs the Wilderness Society’s Arctic Program.

The technology involves pumping sand, water and chemicals underground to unlock oil and natural gas from dense rock formations.

The proposed rule would set new standards for the integrity of wells to ensure groundwater is isolated from fracturing fluids and flowing hydrocarbons. Companies also would be required to have water management plans for handling any liquids that flow back to the surface, in response to concerns that the material can be contaminated with naturally occurring radioactive substances found underground.

In a concession to oil and gas companies, the Bureau of Land Management has proposed requiring drillers to disclose the chemicals they pump underground only after the work is done and through the industry-backed website FracFocus, rather than setting up a government-run disclosure system.

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That’s a change from an earlier plan the Bureau of Land Management proposed in 2012 and withdrew after a flood of critical public comments.

Environmentalists said FracFocus is deficient because data submitted to the chemical registry isn’t available to be downloaded in formats that allow for easier analysis and bulk processing, as mandated under an executive order President Barack Obama issued in May.

With more than 40,000 chemical disclosure reports now on the site as non-editable PDF files, it would take a typical user 12,255 hours of “tedious, repetitive manual work, or almost six years of full-time effort,” to extract the existing data, said John Amos, a geologist who founded Virginia-based SkyTruth.

And many chemical concoctions are left out of the registry altogether because of what Amos termed excessive use of a trade-secret exemption.

In his comments, Amos suggests FracFocus could still be the means of collecting industry’s chemical disclosure reports, but that the Interior Department should publish the resulting data and curate the information.

Critics also said the government should require companies to hand over even trade secret data to the Bureau of Land Management, as was proposed in the 2012 rule draft. Instead, the rewritten proposal would shield companies from providing the information unless the bureau specifically requested it.

When they unveiled the new proposal in May, federal regulators acknowledged that FracFocus was an imperfect solution to their desire for robust chemical disclosure.

Oil and gas industry leaders said the changes aren’t needed at all and add a costly new layer of federal mandates to existing state rules that are sufficient.

The bureau “should recognize that states are already regulating hydraulic fracturing admirably,” said the Western Energy Alliance and Independent Petroleum Association of America, in joint comments. “The only imperative to adopt this rule is an arbitrary desire ‘to do something.’”

The National Association of Manufacturers warned that the federal regulations could jeopardize domestic production of oil and natural gas, with the only justification that the rapid expansion of hydraulic fracturing is causing “public concern.”

“Duplicative hydraulic fracturing regulation would harm any potential gains resulting from increased exploration, development, and production of shale oil and gas,” the manufacturers group said.

The federal government estimated the rule would hike costs by as much as $5,011 per well, but an industry-commissioned study concluded that the added cost would be about $97,000.

Barry Russell, president of the association, said the extra costs would “discourage independent producers from exploring for natural gas and oil on federal lands.”

While the proposed rule would allow the Bureau of Land Management effectively to waive all of the mandate’s requirements in certain states or tribal regions if the agency determines they meet or exceed the new federal standards, the two trade groups said the exemption plan is unclear.

The rule doesn’t specify, when, exactly, state drilling regulations could take precedence or how companies could seek the waivers, the groups said. And a cloud of uncertainty could hang over any granted exemptions if they could be rapidly withdrawn, the groups added.

The associations also criticized new cement evaluation and repair provisions in the proposed rule, saying additional testing is unnecessary in some instances and the measure could force repairs even when they aren’t needed, jeopardizing the integrity of wells. Applying those requirements to existing wells that have not previously been hydraulically fractured could result in companies abandoning the sites prematurely, the groups said.