CHEYENNE, Wyo. — The Obama administration said Friday it will for the first time require companies drilling for oil and natural gas on public and Indian lands to publicly disclose chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing operations.
The proposed fracking rules also set standards for proper construction of wells and wastewater disposal and would require prior approval for any well stimulation activity on Bureau of Land Management land.
It’s unclear yet how the new rules would interact with Wyoming’s state fracking rules, which in some cases are even more stringent than the federal rules being proposed. State officials, as well as oil and gas industry representatives, worried that the new rules would duplicate Wyoming’s law and just create more red tape for energy producers.
Environmental groups offered a lukewarm reaction to the proposed rules, which were softened after industry groups expressed strong concerns about an initial proposal leaked earlier this year.
But at least one member of the Eastern Shoshone Business Council on the Wind River Indian Reservation said the proposed rules could be beneficial, though tribal officials still have to review the plan.
Hydraulic fracturing, in which water, sand and chemicals are in injected underground to break up dense rock that holds oil and gas, has become increasingly controversial as the process has sparked a natural gas boom in several Rocky Mountain and Midwestern states and in such Northeastern states as Pennsylvania.
Critics say fracking chemicals have polluted water supplies, but supporters say there is no proof.
The Bureau of Land Management, which oversees drilling on public lands, estimates that 90 percent of the approximately 3,400 wells currently drilled on federal and Indian lands use hydraulic fracturing techniques.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the long-awaited rules will allow continued expansion of drilling while protecting public health and safety.
“As we continue to offer millions of acres of America’s public lands for oil and gas development, it is critical that the public have full confidence that the right safety and environmental protections are in place,” Salazar said.
Salazar said the rule would include trade secret exemptions for specific formulas. Some of the chemicals used in fracking include benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene, all of which can cause health problems in significant doses.
The proposed rules will be subject to public comment for 60 days, with a final order expected by the end of the year, said BLM Director Bob Abbey. The rules would also not affect drilling on private land, where the bulk of shale exploration is taking place.
In 2010, Wyoming became the first state to require disclosure of materials used in fracking. The state also has regulations governing well construction and wastewater, according to John Robitaille, vice president for the Petroleum Association of Wyoming.
The proposed rules stated that the BLM intends to implement on public lands whichever rules, state or federal, are the “most protective” of federal lands and resources and the environment. They also state that the BLM will “work closely” with state governments to avoid duplicative regulations.
But that’s exactly what Gov. Matt Mead fears will happen. For example, Mead spokesman Renny MacKay said Wyoming requires disclosure of fracking chemicals before drilling, while the draft federal rules would mandate reporting to the federal government after the operation is complete.
“Proven leadership and effective regulation at the state level cause me to question the need and purpose of federal regulation, especially when it is less effective and in many respects duplicative,” Mead said in a media release.
Mark Northam, director of the University of Wyoming’s School of Energy Resources, echoed those fears, saying unless state and federal regulations were unified it could hinder energy exploration in Wyoming.
“It is my opinion that the BLM rules in Wyoming will generate more paperwork and additional burden on operators with no additional benefit to the state, the feds, or the public,” he said in an email.
Several environmental groups also panned the draft federal rules, saying they fall far short of what’s needed to protect public health.
“The oil and gas industry has gotten used to operating in the shadows for too long — hiding chemical information, fighting against right-to-know laws, silencing families who speak out,” said Jessica Ennis of Earthjustice, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental law firm. “It’s unacceptable and needs to end now.”
But on the Wind River Indian Reservation, where Wyoming state fracking regulations don’t apply, the new federal regulations could be a good thing, said Eastern Shoshone Business Councilman Orville St. Clair.
St. Clair said while he hadn’t read the proposed rules, tribal government has already been looking at drafting fracking rules and wants to make sure the technique doesn’t pose any health risks.
“We want development, but we want it in a responsible way. That’s the lifeblood of our income and our government and what we rely on for our economy,” St. Clair said. “But at the same time, contamination of groundwater, possible health risks — those are things that people are really acutely aware of.”