Feds give industry, environmentalists more time to study drilling rule

U.S. regulators are giving the oil industry and other stakeholders more time to weigh in on a controversial proposal to stiffen standards for wells drilled on federal lands, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell pledged Thursday.

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.

Both environmentalists and oil industry leaders had pleaded for extra time to examine the 171-page proposal unveiled last month.

Jewell said she would allow an extra 60 days for stakeholders to vet the proposed rule, giving a full three months for review.

“That will give ample time for people to express their views on it,” Jewell said, “but we do need to get on with (updating) this regulation that has been over 30 years in place (as) technology has moved forward.”

During a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing, Jewell said the extension was designed “to provide an opportunity for people to comment on those rules, to determine whether it is problematic for them.”

An extra two months should be plenty, Jewell said.

“I think that will be plenty of time for them to get comments in,” Jewell told reporters after the hearing. “Many of them have already formulated their comments. It just gives them a little breathing space.”

The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management proposed a similar regulation last year but then withdrew it after a flood of critical responses. Stakeholders had 120 days to weigh in on last year’s proposal.

The new measure has drawn widespread opposition from the oil industry even though it includes a number of concessions geared toward that sector. For instance, the rule would require firms to reveal the chemicals they pump underground at well sites only after the work is done and would accept disclosures via an industry-backed website known as FracFocus, rather than a new, government-run system.

The oil industry — which fundamentally objects to the merits of the rule itself — had urged regulators to stick with the FracFocus site, which has already been chosen as the means for chemical disclosures in Texas, Colorado and other states.

But environmentalists 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 are concerned oil companies and oilfield service firms will shield chemicals as trade secrets, keeping important information out of the database.

Jewell said the broad opposition may be a positive.

“If you’re making both sides mad, it probably means you’re hitting the middle ground,” she said.

While some oil industry leaders have publicly questioned whether there is any need for the rule in the first place, Jewell said she’s not hearing that complaint.

“I’ve met with a lot of representatives from the oil industry,” she said, “and I don’t hear a lot of objections to the rule.”

“We’re talking about a minimum standard for federal land,” Jewell said. “My job is to oversee the federal estate and make sure we are safely and responsibly developing these resources on behalf of all American people, so we’re not talking about state land here.”

She noted that the proposed rule does allow federal regulators to waive the mandates in some states, such as where the local requirements are more stringent.