BLM draft fracking rules get close look in Wyoming

2013-05-16T16:31:00Z 2013-06-21T11:45:06Z BLM draft fracking rules get close look in WyomingBy ADAM VOGE Casper Star-Tribune The Billings Gazette
May 16, 2013 4:31 pm  • 

CASPER, Wyo. — The Obama administration said Thursday that it will require companies that drill for oil and natural gas on federal lands to publicly disclose chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing operations. Many in Wyoming were still digesting the new federal rules at press time.

The new "fracking" rules replace a draft proposed last year that was withdrawn amid industry complaints that federal regulation could hinder an ongoing boom in natural gas production.

Many operators, lobbyists and state officials across Wyoming said Thursday afternoon they hadn’t made it through the document. Many didn’t know how to feel about the agency’s plan, and few knew how Wyoming’s own rules for the industry would interact with the federal rules, which will become the country’s first nationwide standard. Some were afraid the national rules were a step back.

Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell called Gov. Matt Mead before the rules’ 1 p.m. release to let the governor know to expect the rules at a previously-announced press conference. According to a Mead spokesman, she also briefly described the regulations.

Mead has said before that he doesn’t think federal rules are necessary, given Wyoming’s own rules, but spokesman Renny MacKay said Thursday afternoon that Mead still hadn’t formed an opinion about what was released.

“He wants to take some time to do some further analysis,” MacKay said.

Other officials around the state offered comments similar to Mead’s.

Oil and gas supervisor Grant Black -- now in his third week on the job -- said his staff was working to determine how the rules would interact with Wyoming’s own regulations.

Wyoming in 2010 began mandating full disclosure of fracking fluid ingredients, although some are kept secret from the public if granted trade secrets status by the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

“We’re proud of the rules that we do have; Wyoming’s taken a position of leadership,” Black said. “This is one more thing we’ll have to look at.”

The new draft rules rely on an online database used by Colorado and 10 other states to track the chemicals used in fracking operations. FracFocus.org is a website formed by industry and intergovernmental groups in 2011 that allows users to gather well-specific data on thousands of drilling sites.

Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes defended the use of FracFocus, calling it a potentially valuable tool to make information on fracking operations available to the public.

"Let there be no doubt, what we are interested in is good public disclosures" of information on fracking and chemicals in drilling operations, Hayes said.

Besides Colorado, FracFocus is used by Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas and Utah.

The site and its operators don't regulate fracking in any way, but rather provide a repository for relevant information.

Fracking involves pumping huge volumes of water, sand and chemicals underground to split open rocks to allow oil and gas to flow. In concert with new drilling innovations, the technology has allowed energy companies to gain access to huge stores of natural gas underneath states from Wyoming to New York, but has generated widespread concerns about possible groundwater contamination.

Environmental and landowner groups in Wyoming expressed early concern about the rules.

“I think we’re a little bit concerned that [the federal] proposal is a step backward from what Wyoming already has on the books, particularly when it comes to disclosure,” said Shannon Anderson, an organizer for the Sheridan-based Powder River Basin Resource Council.

Richard Garrett, energy and legislative advocate for the Wyoming Outdoor Council, said he feared that some parts of the rules -- specifically those regarding fracking fluid disclosure -- were “awkward at best and maybe counterproductive at worst.”

Several from the industry active in Wyoming said, including John Robitaille, vice president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, said they hadn’t had enough time to review the rules.

A representative of Anadarko Petroleum said her company was digging into the rules. Chesapeake Energy declined comment.

An Encana Oil and Gas spokeswoman said her company expects little to change in their Wyoming operations.

“It’s redundant to what the state’s really requiring of us,” Bridget Ford said. “We don’t really see a change.”

Jewell, the Interior secretary, called the proposed rules a "common-sense update" that increase safety while also providing flexibility and improving coordination with states and Indian tribes.

Current regulations date back to the Sony Walkman era, Jewell said.

"As we continue to offer millions of acres of America's public lands for oil and gas development, it is important that the public has full confidence that the right safety and environmental protections are in place," she said.

But environmental groups said the proposal was weaker than last year's plan and represents a nearly complete capitulation to industry, which had lobbied heavily against the earlier rule. Interior's Bureau of Land Management has held at least 11 meetings this year with industry groups as well as fracking opponents.

"Comparing today's rule governing fracking on public lands with the one proposed a year earlier, it is clear what happened: the Bureau of Land Management caved to the wealthy and powerful oil and gas industry and left the public to fend for itself," said Jessica Ennis, a spokeswoman for the environmental group Earthjustice.

The land management bureau appears to have settled for "shoddy protections peddled by the oil and gas industry," Ennis said.

Erik Milito, director of upstream and industry operations for the American Petroleum Institute, said the federal rules were unnecessary, since state rules and state-based tools, such as FracFocus, are already in place to ensure responsible drilling.

Changes made since last year "attempt to better acknowledge the state role," Milito said, but the Obama administration "has yet to answer the question why BLM is moving forward with these requirements in the first place."

The API and other industry groups urged the administration and Congress to take a close look at the proposed rules, which are subject to a 30-day comment period before being made final this summer.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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