Feds work through millions of comments on fracking rules

WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told lawmakers on Thursday that regulators are still sifting through more than a million public comments on a proposal to stiffen mandates for oil and gas drilling on public land, which suggests the final regulation could be a long way off.

Proposed in May 2012, the measure would be the first major update to rules governing drilling on federal and Indian land in three decades.

But writing a mandate that would apply to wells across the United States has proved challenging for regulators, who are trying to assuage environmentalists concerned about hydraulic fracturing without putting up major roadblocks to the domestic drilling boom.

Testifying before the House Natural Resources Committee and speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the session, Jewell stressed the importance of getting the mandates right. Baseline mandates are necessary in some areas without long histories of oil and gas drilling, she said.

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Jewell said the Bureau of Land Management is combing through the comments lodged on the proposal and making progress in addressing concerns with the rule. “It’s a very live process,” she told the Houston Chronicle, adding that she expects a final proposal before the end of the year.

The measure 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. The well stimulation technique involves pumping sand, water and chemicals underground.

The proposed rule would set new standards for the integrity of wells to ensure groundwater is isolated and would require companies to have water management plans for handling any liquids that flow back to the surface.

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Rep. John Fleming, R-La., questioned why the changes were needed, without clear evidence of groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing operations.

“Why do we need federal regulations when we’ve been doing a sterling job?” he asked. “If they’re doing a fantastic job and we haven’t seen bad results, isn’t this the classic case of the hammer looking for the nail?”

In response, Jewell said that recent changes in oil and gas development potentially outpace regulations that govern the activity. Although hydraulic fracturing is decades old, it was only recently that energy companies began combining the technique with horizontal drilling to pull oil and gas from dense rock formations.

Jewell underscored that she believes hydraulic fracturing “can be done safely and responsibly” — a message she also delivered soon after taking office last May.

But the safety “depends a lot on factors like well bore integrity and if you have a good cement job,” said Jewell, who previously worked as a petroleum engineer.

For the Bureau of Land Management, one major challenge in honing the draft rule is recognizing the widely varying geologies around the country. The proposal would allow the bureau essentially to waive all of the requirements for states or tribal regions that have tougher mandates in place, but governors have said that’s not enough protection.

The Western Governors Association, headed by Colorado Democrat John Hickenlooper, told Jewell in an August letter that it would be smarter for the Bureau of Land Management to leverage existing state programs, resources and infrastructure. “State regulatory programs have been thoughtfully designed by experts to address state-specific issues and factors,” the group said.

Erik Milito, upstream director for the American Petroleum Institute, which has opposed the rule as unwarranted, said the pushback from some states could be changing the bureau’s approach.

The agency can make the measure “more consistent with what the states are doing and allow operators to really continue to work in a way that reflects state-level regulation rather than creating conflicting or duplicative rules that may not add to safety,” Milito said.


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