Interior Secretary: Feds won’t overrule tougher state fracking regulations

WASHINGTON — Coming government mandates for hydraulic fracturing on federal and Indian lands will not trump the rules in states that already have tougher regulations in place, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said Tuesday.

At issue are proposed regulations from the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management that would govern the design and stimulation of wells on public lands. The agency is set to unveil the final mandates “soon,” Jewell told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee during a wide-ranging hearing Tuesday.

They are poised to be the first major update of Interior Department rules governing oil and gas wells on public land since they were first written three decades ago.

And while the mandates would only apply on public land under the Interior Department’s control, oil companies have worried about complying with multiple layers of local, state and federal regulations even within the same state.

The draft rule proposed last year would allow exceptions in states that have tougher rules on the books. Jewell’s comments Tuesday suggested some kind of exception would be preserved in the final rule, now under review at the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.

“These are minimal standards on federal and tribal lands,” Jewell told reporters after the hearing. “If the state has a higher standard, the state standard will be adopted within that state.”

Jewell singled out Wyoming as a state with tough regulations. Such “mature oil and gas producing states . . . tend to have had rules on the books for a long time, and they’ve kept them more up to date than ours,” she said.

Interior Department officials have been consulting with states on the rule, Jewell said. “We know what the states’ rules are, and they will align in some cases,” she said. “(But) ours may be more stringent in some ways, and we are going to hold companies to those higher standards.”

The proposed rule would force companies to reveal the chemicals they pump underground when stimulating a well through hydraulic fracturing, a technique that opens up the pores of oil- and gas-bearing rock, releasing the trapped hydrocarbons. In a concession to oil and gas companies, the Bureau of Land Management would allow that disclosure to happen after the work is done via an industry-backed website known as FracFocus.

It is unclear whether that system will be preserved in the final rule. The Interior Department could require improvements to FracFocus in order for it to be used for chemical disclosure.

The measure also would set new standards for the integrity of wells to ensure groundwater is isolated from fluids pumped underground and any hydrocarbons flowing at the sites. Companies also would be required to have water management plans for handling the fluids that flow back to the surface, in response to concerns that the material can be contaminated with naturally occurring radioactive substances found underground.