Obama administration releases new fracking rules to keep up with technology – Los Angeles Times

Posted: Friday, March 20, 2015

The Obama administration on Friday announced for the first time regulations on the controversial practice known as fracking, which has reduced U.S. dependence on foreign oil but raised fears of contamination of drinking water and other environmental risks, saying that safety rules have failed to keep up with advances in the extraction of gas and oil from beneath the earth’s surface.

The rules take effect in 90 days and apply only to wells on federal and tribal land, not those on state and private lands, where most fracking wells are operated. They also will not affect fracking operations already under way, meaning they would not impact hundreds of thousands of wells in more than 15 states.

But Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said she hoped the tougher regulations could provide the basis for stricter safety measures for all oil and natural gas extraction.

“I believe it will be helpful as a model,” said Jewell, a former petroleum engineer who cited her own experiences fracking in Oklahoma more than 20 years ago as evidence of the need for change.

“Many of the regulations on the books today haven’t kept pace with advances in technology,” said Jewell, noting in particular the horizontal drilling through shale and the blasting of chemicals into wells to break through rock.

Fracking involves high-pressure injection of water mixed with sand and chemicals to crack geological formations and reach previously inaccessible oil and gas reserves. Fracking fluids contain a host of chemicals, including some known carcinogens and neurotoxins, and the practice has been banned in some states amid concerns of environmental pollution and especially contamination of water supplies.

Jewell credited fracking with helping reduce the United States’ dependence on foreign oil to its lowest level in 30 years. “Hydraulic fracking is a major factor in that,” said Jewell. But she said public worries mandated tighter regulation.

“There is a lot of fear,” she said. “There’s a lot of public concern, particularly about the safety of groundwater.”

Key points of the new regulations include requirements that companies publicly disclose chemicals used in their fracking operations to the Bureau of Land Management; use of cement barriers to restrict the flow of fracking fluid into underground water supplies; and the use of covered tanks above ground to hold fluids injected into wells for fracking operations. They also call for heightened federal inspections and monitoring.

Of the states where fracking already is under way, officials said 13 have their own guidelines in place. Some of them already adhere to the new regulations; others would have to stiffen their regulations.

Steven Bohlen, California’s oil and gas supervisor, said he was confident the state’s existing regulations would meet the new federal standards.

“We welcome the federal government governing its own lands, but it will have no impact on the state regulations because the state regulations are equal to or more stringent to all federal regulations that I know about,” Bohlen said.

California’s oil industry is the fourth-largest in the nation. Its path to formulate fracking regulations began in 2013 with the passage of SB4, which established what were considered the nation’s most strict rules.

However, the new federal rules would ban in all but rare cases the use of open, unlined pits to dispose of fracking fluids and oilfield waste. Such pits are common in the southern San Joaquin Valley, where local water officials recently discovered hundreds of unpermitted pits.

Last year, research by Stanford University scientists said energy companies were fracking at far shallower depths than widely believed, sometimes through underground sources of drinking water, further roiling the debate over safety.

Industry officials say the practice is safe, and within minutes of the Department of Interior announcing the new regulations, the Independent Petroleum Assn. of America and Western Energy Alliance filed a lawsuit to try to block them from taking effect. The complaint, filed in federal court in Wyoming, said the Bureau of Land Management lacked evidence to support the rules.

“From California to Pennsylvania, the oil and natural gas industry has played a critical role in reviving America’s economy and hydraulic fracturing has been the key to this revival,” said the president and chief executive of the Independent Petroleum Assn. of America, Barry Russell. “These new mandates on hydraulic fracturing by the federal government, however, are the complete opposite of common sense.”

Jewell said she anticipated attempts to block the regulations, which took four years to compile and involved more than 1.5 million comments from individuals and groups.

“We expect these rules will, in fact, stick,” she said.

 

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

1:16 p.m.: This story was updated with information about California fracking and addition details from Jewell.

This story was published at 11:21 a.m.

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