Ken Salazar defends looming hydraulic fracturing requirements

The Obama administration is carefully writing new rules to govern hydraulic fracturing on public lands to make sure they don’t impede the development of America’s promising natural gas supplies, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar insisted today.

“We are developing a rule and taking input from a lot of different places . . . to ensure that it does not push back on the bright future for natural gas,” Salazar told the House Natural Resources Committee.

Salazar’s comments came amid fresh criticism from Republican lawmakers about the looming regulations that are expected to force disclosure of chemicals used to stimulate gas and oil production, set new standards for the design of wells and create new requirements governing water use at the sites.

The proposed rule, expected to be unveiled early next year, would apply to wells on roughly 700 million acres of public lands.

Bureau of Land Management Director Bob Abbey said the proposal is spurred by the surge in wells that are being hydraulically fractured — a technique that involves blasting mixtures of water, sand and chemicals deep underground to break up dense shale rock formations and unlock trapped oil and natural gas.

The BLM recently estimated that roughly nine out of every 10 wells drilled on public lands managed by the agency are stimulated by hydraulic fracturing.

Salazar said the Interior Department was still writing the rule, but emphasized its focus on well integrity and disclosure.

“The issues for me are clear,” he told reporters. “It’s one, disclosure, two, well bore integrity and three, what happens with respect to flowback water.”

Ultimately, Salazar added, “we want to land in a place that will be supportive of natural gas development in the United States.”

Republican lawmakers were skeptical of Interior’s plans. Noting the promise of natural gas, committee Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., said it was “concerning that potential onerous regulations could drastically curtail that cooperation and impede its development and usage.”

But Salazar insisted that the coming regulations could actually give natural gas a leg up, by boosting public confidence in the drilling and hydraulic fracturing techniques that are key to unlocking it.

Fears that methane can escape from poorly cemented and designed wells and contaminate groundwater supplies have prompted some states and local policymakers to propose bans on hydraulic fracturing.

The Interior regulations could ensure “we don’t end up in a circumstance where we end up seeing the kind of moratoria . . . now being proposed around the country,” Salazar said.

“The most important thing we could do in a bipartisan way is to move forward in a way that supports the natural gas industry,” Salazar added. “In my view, some of these issues will have to be addressed in order to move forward with a robust natural gas (program).”

That didn’t assuage Republican critics.

Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., cited industry stats that 2 million wells have been hydraulically fractured, roughly half of them in the United States, over the past six decades.

Rep. John Fleming, R-La., questioned whether there had been any “deaths or serious injuries to humans as a result of … the 60 years of hydrofracking that’s been performed.”

Abbey said he was not aware of any water contamination incident involving hydraulic fracturing on public lands.

“It’s very easy to understand why no one has had serious harm as a result of it,” Fleming said. “It is not harming people.”

“Certainly I would say that the Solyndra affair has harmed more people than hydrofracking has in 60 years,” Fleming added — invoking the dispute over federal loan guarantees to the failed solar company.

In one heated exchange, Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, pressed Salazar whether there had been any water contamination from hydraulically fractured wells.

“Are you aware of any scientific studies?” Gohmert asked.

When Salazar didn’t immediately give a direct answer — and instead initially reiterated that the administration “supports the development of natural gas,” Gohmert repeatedly pushed for a yes or no response.

“You have no scientific studies that show (contamination),” Gohmert said.

Salazar shot back: “The ear banging that you’re engaging in is not helpful.”

Salazar later said “there are examples . . . around the country” of water supplies that have been contaminated by methane from poorly designed wells. But, he acknowledged that is separate from water supplies tainted by hydraulic fracturing chemicals.

“With respect to hydraulic (fracturing), because it occurs so far underground, we don’t know any examples of (contamination) on public lands,” Salazar said. “But it demonstrates the importance of ensuring we have wellbore integrity up and down the entire wellbore.”