A drill pad in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale. Credit: Doug Duncan, USGS

Final standards on hydraulic fracturing on public and American Indian lands, which the Department of the Interior (DOI) announced earlier today, are good for development and the environment, according to the agency.

The new rule on hydraulic fracturing (commonly known as fracking) serves as “a much-needed complement” to existing regulations, according to the agency’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which issued the standards. The standards are designed to ensure environmentally responsible oil and gas development on federal and Indian lands “in light of the increasing use and complexity of hydraulic fracturing coupled with advanced horizontal drilling technology,” according to the final agency draft of the rule.

Provisions of the rule, which takes effect in June, include measures to protect groundwater supplies, monitor well integrity, disclose chemical use to the public (with some exceptions for trade secrets), and safely manage recovered waste fluids in rigid enclosed aboveground storage tanks.

Bringing Regulations into the 21st Century

Fracking is a process that involves injecting water, sand, and chemicals into bedrock formations to increase the oil or gas flow to a well. About 25% of such unconventional oil and gas extraction efforts in the United States are located on public and tribal lands, according to DOI. That totals about 100,000 oil and gas wells.

Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, who said earlier in the week that the rule was imminent, stated in a briefing today that the new standards will bring decades-old regulations into the 21st century.

“We need to update our regulations to make sure they can keep up with evolving technologies and innovation by industry.”

“We need to update our regulations to make sure they can keep up with evolving technologies and innovation by industry,” said Jewell, a former petroleum engineer. “As we continue to offer millions of acres of America’s public lands for oil and gas development, it is absolutely critical that the public has confidence that robust safety and environmental protections are in place.”

According to BLM, compliance with the standards will cost about $11,400 per well, between 0.13% and 0.21% of the cost of drilling a well.

Jewell said that despite potential efforts by some in Congress and in industry to try to block the rule, the agency “is upholding the public trust.”

“There is a lot of fear and a lot of public concern, particularly about the safety of groundwater and the impact of the operations,” she said. “We believe that these standards are essential.”

“We expect that these rules will in fact stick, that it would be a mistake to take a very thoughtful long-term [rule-making] process and overrule it through congressional action,” she said. “The standards “are really very consistent with best practices going on in the industry and best practices going on in many of the states.”

A view looking up at drill rig in the Fayetteville Shale gas basin of Arkansas. Credit: Bill Cunningham, USGS
A view looking up at drill rig in the Fayetteville Shale gas basin of Arkansas. Credit: Bill Cunningham, USGS

Seismicity Concerns

The new fracking standards do not deal with seismicity. The rule notes, “Several comments stated that the rule should be modified to limit hydraulic fracturing activities in those areas with seismic zones. The BLM did not revise the rule as a result of these comments. The research on the phenomena of induced seismicity from hydraulic fracturing operations is still ongoing and inconclusive.”

The rule continues, “For hydraulic fracturing operations proposed in seismically active areas or when the BLM determines through the internal and public scoping process that seismic impacts are an issue, risks of induced seismicity would be evaluated through the NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] analysis, including analysis of the proposed drilling and fracturing operations. These final regulations also require submittal of additional geologic information prior to hydraulic fracturing to help further that review.”

Pushback from Some Officials and Industry

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) commented, “This administration has already taken unprecedented steps to block development in Alaska. Given its antidevelopment approach, we should expect this rule to make it even harder to produce oil and gas on federal lands. The fact remains: If Interior was half as interested in new production as it is in new regulation, our nation would be in a far better place.”

“Given [the Administration’s] antidevelopment approach, we should expect this rule to make it even harder to produce oil and gas on federal lands.”

Erik Milito, director of upstream and industry operations with the American Petroleum Industry (API), said that the rule imposes new costs and delays on energy development without improving on existing state and federal regulations. “Despite the renaissance on state and private lands, energy production on federal lands has fallen, and this rule is just one more barrier to growth,” he said.

“Under the strong environmental stewardship of state regulators, hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling have opened up a new era of energy security, job growth, and economic strength,” Milito continued. “Increased production and use of natural gas has helped cut U.S. carbon emissions to a nearly 20-year low, and this decision only stands in the way of further progress.”

Some Call for Ban or Further Controls on Fracking

U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.), who introduced legislation in the previous Congress to ban fracking on all federal lands, said that the regulation doesn’t go far enough. “We owe it to our future generations to protect the land that was put aside for the public good. Regulating fracking still risks accidental spills, water contamination, methane leaks, earthquakes, and habitat destruction. The only way to mediate these risks is to not allow fracking in the first place,” he said.

Dan Chu, senior director for Sierra Club’s Our Wild America campaign, said that the regulations “represent important progress in holding the oil and gas industry accountable for the full economic and environmental cost of extracting dirty fuels from our public lands. When fully enforced, this new rule will reduce the harm caused by fracking to our land, water, and health near communities where leasing has already occurred. However, the only true way to protect communities from fracking is to not frack at all.”

—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2015), Interior department issues fracking standards, Eos, 96, doi:10.1029/2015EO026719. Published on 20 March 2015.

Text © 2015. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0
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