New fracking regulations upset just about everybody

Environmentalists and industry representatives are criticizing new draft regulations on hydraulic fracturing, a controversial drilling method that has helped spark an oil and gas boom. The shared discontent reflects the complexity of the debate surrounding hydraulic fracturing and natural gas use.

Brennan Linsley/AP/File
A worker checks water levels and temperatures in a series of tanks at a hydraulic fracturing operation outside Rifle, Colo. New draft regulations on so-called 'fracking,' have drawn criticism from both sides of the hydraulic fracturing debate.

New draft regulations on a controversial drilling method are drawing fire from both sides of the hydraulic fracturing debate. The technique, which involves injecting large amounts of water, sand, and chemicals into the ground to release oil and gas, has helped to spark a boom in US energy production.

Environmentalists say the proposal by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM)  does not go far enough in overseeing "fracking" on public lands. Citing preexisting state regulations, oil and gas representatives say the federal oversight is redundant and curtails an industry that supports millions of jobs.  

“States have led the way in regulating hydraulic fracturing operations while protecting communities and the environment for decades," Erik Milito, director of upstream and industry operations for the American Petroleum Institute, said in a statement "While changes to the proposed rule attempt to better acknowledge the state role, BLM has yet to answer the question why BLM is moving forward with these requirements in the first place."

The draft allows for states to propose their own rules if they can demonstrate they sufficiently protect local resources from contamination. It requires companies to disclose the chemical makeup of their fracking fluid but allows for "trade secret" exemption. Environmentalists say that process lacks a policing mechanism and is susceptible to abuse. 

The proposed regulations continue to allow for storing waste water in lined, open pits. It revises the requirements companies must meet to ensure the structural integrity of drilling wells.

"Compared to the rules on the books, this does represent a degree of progress." Matt Watson, national director of state programs in natural gas at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), said in a telephone interview. "[But] 'part of the way there,' isn’t good enough when you’re dealing with something where a failure can quite literally result in catastrophe."

There are more than 92,000 oil and gas wells on public lands, accounting for about 13 percent of the nation's natural gas production and 5 percent of its oil production, according to BLM. Approximately 90 percent of those wells use hydraulic fracturing.

Water makes up most of the fluid used in fracking, while chemicals typically account for less than 1 percent. But the process uses large amounts of the fluid and can pick up toxic materials on its path through rock. The resulting waste water is a concern for many, but the industry says it can safely recycle or dispose of leftover fluid.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell downplayed the backlash she expected to arise from both sides of the divisive 'fracking' debate.

"You're going to hear from folks that we caved in to industry or we bowed to pressure from environmentalists," Ms. Jewell said, as reported by EnergyWire. "The fact is that this is a common-sense proposal that benefited from the feedback we got from stakeholders on all sides of this issue."

The question of how, or if, to exploit the nation's vast natural gas resources creates divisions even among groups that might otherwise be aligned. 

For some clean-energy advocates, the gas production booms in North DakotaPennsylvania, and elsewhere represent a continued reliance on carbon-based resources, which undermines efforts to develop renewables. 

If President Obama honestly wants to tackle climate change, then he must look for every opportunity to keep dirty fossil fuels in the ground and to double down on clean energy solutions like wind, solar, and energy efficiency," Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said in a statement Thursday, responding to the new rules. "The last thing we should be doing is opening up still more public land to drilling and fracking."

That's at odds with other environmentalists who concede natural gas isn't perfect, but better than coal, which emits about twice as much carbon dioxide. 

"Whether or not you think natural gas should be part of the energy mix, the fact is, it is," said Mr. Watson of the EDF. With that in mind, Watson said the focus should be on preventing heat-trapping methane leaks during natural-gas drilling and reducing the environmental impact of the associated heavy industrial activity.

The draft will undergo a 30-day public comment period before the BLM issues an official rule.

Energy: New drilling techniques have created a boom in US oil and gas production.

Environment: Hydraulic fracturing is water-intensive and relies on potentially-dangerous chemicals.

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