Oil lobby asks for more time to vet drilling standards

The oil and gas lobby is adding its voice to a growing chorus of lawmakers, environmentalists and industry representatives pleading for more time to review a proposal to stiffen standards for drilling on federal lands.

The American Petroleum Institute is asking the Obama administration to take public comments on the proposed rule for 120 days — four times as long as planned. In a letter to the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, the trade group said the additional time is warranted “considering the rule has the potential to significantly impact domestic energy production, as well as national, state and local economies.”

The API’s request comes on the heels of a similar bid by the top Republican and Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, who last week insisted that the drilling proposal is too broad for the public to vet  in  30 days.

Reps. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., and Ed Markey, D-Mass., called the current 30-day time frame “unacceptable,” and said it would limit the number of “in-depth and constructive comments on this 171-page, complicated rule.”

Separately, the head of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, Barry Russell, asked for at least 120 days to review the proposal a May 17 letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. “We believe that our subject matter experts from member companies will need to reevaluate the rule in its entirety in order to fully understand the impacts on our member companies,” Russell said.

Related story: Political foes plea for more time on fracturing rule

The measure seeks to boost the integrity of oil and gas wells to prevent contamination, while also forcing companies to disclose the chemicals they pump underground and making drillers adopt plans for managing water at the sites.

Although it would apply broadly, the measure represents the first major bid by the federal government to regulate hydraulic fracturing, a process that involves pumping sand, water and chemicals underground to open the pores of dense rock formations and free hydrocarbons trapped inside. By combining hydraulic fracturing with horizontal drilling techniques, energy companies have been able to harvest domestic oil and gas resources previously thought unrecoverable — potentially putting the U.S. on track to become a net exporter of the fossil fuels.

The new proposal is a complete rewrite of an earlier initiative proposed last May and later withdrawn after a flood of critical comments from industry representatives and environmentalists. Stakeholders had 120 days to weigh in on that proposal last year — a process that yielded nearly 200,000 public comments.

An Interior Department spokesman said it has received the requests for more time but has not responded.

Related story: Feds’ fracturing rule signifies Obama’s approach to natural gas

In writing the newly proposed rule, federal regulators made a number of concessions to the oil industry, such as limiting the measure to hydraulic fracturing on federal and tribal lands, instead of broadly applying the new standards to all well stimulation activities. The proposal also would allow oil and gas companies to reveal the chemicals they pump underground using the industry’s preferred disclosure system, FracFocus, despite opposition from environmentalists.

And, the proposal would allow regulators to carve out some areas entirely, effectively allowing the federal government to say the standards don’t apply in some states or tribal territories.

But the oil industry contends that even with the changes, the measure would add another layer of regulation to an activity already overseen by state and local authorities.

Erik Milito, API’s upstream director, said the Interior Department “has yet to answer the question why BLM is moving forward with these requirements in the first place.”

“States have led the way in regulating hydraulic fracturing operations while protecting communities and the environment for decades,” Milito said. “Confusing the regulatory system would stand in the way of economic growth, job creation and the opportunity to generate billions in revenue for federal, state and local governments.”

Environmentalists, meanwhile, have accused the Obama administration of caving to Big Oil by weakening the proposal. Oil and gas companies would have too much latitude to deem chemicals “trade secrets” and shield information about the substances from public view, the critics say.

And, they say, by focusing narrowly on hydraulic fracturing, the proposed rule does not touch other well stimulation activities that pose environmental risks.

Some conservationists also wanted the Interior Department to require baseline water testing before drilling occurs.