Feds advance hydraulic fracturing rule

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is on track to impose new mandates governing hydraulic fracturing on public land by the end of the year — a move that will test the White House’s ability to appease worried environmentalists while still sustaining the drilling boom bolstering the U.S. economy.

The timeline is tied to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which launched a final interagency review of the measure on Tuesday. The office, which disclosed the review on Friday, generally has 90 days to vet proposed regulations, though it can finish early and extensions are allowed.

It appears unlikely the final rule would be published before the Nov. 4 midterm elections — a benefit to several Senate Democrats in tight reelection contests who have weathered attacks from opponents seeking to tie them to the administration’s energy and environmental policies.

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The measure, first proposed in May 2012 but then rewritten a year later, will update rules governing drilling on federal and Indian land for the first time in three decades. It also is set to be the first major federal rule governing the hydraulic fracturing technology that is now being used to stimulate oil and natural gas production from horizontal wells across the United States.

Written by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management, the rule is focused on boosting the integrity of wells to ensure fluids are contained within them, ensuring recovered fluids are safely stored and forcing disclosure of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing on public lands.

The Interior Department stressed in a statement that it is committed to expanding “safe and responsible domestic energy production.”

The final rule includes “commonsense updates that will increase safety while also providing flexibility and facilitating coordination with states and tribes,” the department said. “As we continue to offer millions of acres of America’s public lands for oil and gas development, it is important that the public has full confidence that the right safety and environmental protections are in place.”

Major details are still under wraps.

For instance, it is unclear whether the final rule will roll back some major concessions to the oil industry, including a decision to apply requirements just to hydraulic fracturing on public lands, rather than broadly to all well stimulation activities. Another big question is whether the Interior Department will continue to endorse the industry’s preferred chemical disclosure system, FracFocus, or if it will insist on changes to the industry-backed website and registry.

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And while the 2013 proposal would allow the Bureau of Land Management to waive requirements in certain states or tribal regions if their own mandates meet or exceed the federal standards, the final rule could go further in spelling out when exceptions could be granted and how those decisions will be made.

Industry officials argue that the entire measure is unneeded and that state regulations are better geared toward the unique geology and circumstances of different regions, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.

But conservationists say the federal rule will create an essential set of baseline standards that would apply across the country — setting a floor of requirements on which states could model their own regulations.