The Obama administration imposed tougher restrictions Friday on oil and gas “fracking” operations on public lands, seeking to lower the risk of water contamination from a controversial practice that is chiefly behind the recent boom in U.S. energy production.
The regulations represent the administration’s most significant effort to tighten standards for hydraulic fracturing, a technique that helped make the United States the world’s No. 1 producer of natural gas while igniting a fierce debate over environmental consequences.
The Interior Department rules apply only to oil and gas drilling on federal lands, or about a quarter of the country’s current fossil-fuel output. But the prospect of new regulations has drawn sharp opposition from industry groups who say the new requirements will drive up production costs everywhere.
Fracking, as it is commonly known, involves injecting liquids into underground rock formations at high pressure to extract oil and gas that would be all but inaccessible using conventional methods. In the decade since the technology became widely available, the practice has revolutionized the country’s natural-gas industry while also raising fears about groundwater pollution and even a heightened risk of earthquakes.
The rules announced on Friday are intended chiefly to minimize the threat of water contamination from fracking. Companies that drill on public lands would be subject to stricter design standards for wells and also for holding tanks and ponds where liquid wastes are stored.
Interior officials also introduced new transparency measures that require firms to publicly disclose the types of the chemical additives they use. The liquid injected into fracking wells consists mainly of water and sand, with small amounts of other substances that can range from coffee grinds to acids and salts.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, in announcing the regulations, said the “common-sense” changes would allow “responsible development while protecting natural resources.”
“Current federal well-drilling regulations are more than 30 years old, and they simply have not kept pace with the technical complexities of today’s hydraulic fracturing operations,” said Jewell, who started her career as an engineer working on oil rigs in Oklahoma. With millions of acres of federal land open to oil and gas exploration, “it is absolutely critical the public have confidence that transparent and effective safety and environmental protections are in place,” she said.
But the rules quickly came under attack by industry groups and even from environmentalists, some of whom complained that the regulations did not go nearly far enough.
Two industry groups immediately filed suit to block the measures. The Independent Petroleum Association of America and Western Energy Alliance called the rules a “reaction to unsubstantiated concerns,” and warned that the U.S. natural gas boom could fizzle.
“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,” Barry Russell, the IPAA president, said in a statement. Imposing new costs on energy companies at a time of plummeting oil and gas prices is the “complete opposite of common-sense,” he said.
Among environmentalists, the reaction was mixed. Madeleine Foote, legislative representative for the League of Conservation Voters, called the regulations “an important step forward in regulating fracking,” but said environmental groups were disappointed that the requirements were not tougher.
“It represents a missed opportunity to set a high bar for protections that would truly increase transparency and reduce the impacts to our air, water, public lands, and communities by the oil and gas industry,” she said.
Others environmentalists said fracking has no place on taxpayer-owned land, especially at a time when the White House is looking for dramatic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions blamed for climate change.
“Fracking threatens our air, water and climate – and for what?” said Drew Hudson, executive director for Environmental Action. “When the shale gas bubble pops, and it will, we’ll have wasted years on a seriously dirty way to drill for a mostly dirty fuel.”
The Interior Department regulations, the final result of a rule-making process that began four years ago, apply to about 90,000 oil and gas wells currently operating on lands managed by the department’s Bureau of Land Management as well as tribal lands. At least four times as many fracking operations occur on private or state land, where they are subject to local regulations which range from stringent to non-existent.
White House officials defended the regulations, saying the final version reflected an effort to facilitate continued economic growth while addressing serious environmental and public health concerns.
“We believe that in order to have a more durable industry in the future we need to strike a more appropriate balance between public health and safety and allowing for responsible production,” White House deputy chief of staff Brian Deese said at a press breakfast shortly before the rules were announced.
Despite their limited scope, the federal regulations could lead to broader changes throughout the industry, particularly when it comes to disclosure requirements, Deese said.
“That is very important from a transparency perspective but it also is important for having a template that this industry can work from, given the degree of localized concern and public concern about this,” Deese said.
Staff writer Steven Mufson contributed to this report.