Will new federal regulations make fracking safer?

Michael Bastasch | Energy Editor

Environmentalists have long been pushing the Obama administration to impose new regulations on hydraulic fracturing on federal lands as efforts to ban the practice in states have fallen short.

The administration has proposed regulations that would require disclosure of chemicals used in fracking, certain standards for wells and disposing of wastewater.

“Americans want President Obama to protect our beautiful public lands and our communities from fracking pollution,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute. “This is an inherently dangerous technology that contaminates our air and water and disrupts our climate. The president has a duty to protect our environment and our heritage by standing up to the oil and gas industry and preventing fracking in these wonderful wild places.”

Proponents of fracking argue that federal regulations duplicate what is already being done by the states and would do little to make the practice safer.

“A new layer of duplicative regulations would raise costs and create needless delays for domestic energy production, threatening jobs and revenues that are driving U.S. growth,” said Erik Milito, director of upstream and industry operations at the American Petroleum Institute.

“The [Bureau of Land Management] has taken steps to improve its proposal from last year, and it wisely follows the lead of states that have already adopted FracFocus to improve transparency, but there is still no clear benefit to imposing additional federal rules on top of state environmental stewardship,” Milito added.

The high-profile nature of the new federal fracking requirements has made it a battleground over drilling on federal lands, which has declined in recent years. The agency’s rule has received nearly 700,000 comments from proponents and opponents of the drilling practice.

Obama is in a tough spot on fracking, as he is ostensibly for the drilling technique, but is presiding over falling oil and natural gas production on federal lands, while oil and gas production on private and state lands has exploded.

Oil production on federal lands fell from 1,731,500 barrels per day in 2009 to 1,627,400 barrels per day last year, and natural gas production plummeted from 5,376 billion cubic feet in 2009 to 3,724 billion cubic feet last year.

“This industry is leading an economic renaissance in America and has created jobs at a rate forty times faster than the broader economy, according to federal estimates,” Milito said. “There is no sound legal or environmental reason to jeopardize that growth with regulatory confusion and uncertainty.”

The BLM estimates that the rule would cost the oil and gas industry between $12 million and $20 million annually. However, industry estimates that the costs of the federal rules would be between $30 million to $2.7 billion per year.

Economics aside, 275 environmental groups delivered more than 600,000 comments last week urging the administration to ban fracking on federal lands due to environmental concerns.

Environmental groups argue that the drilling practice — which involves pumping water, sand, and some chemicals underground to break up rock formations — could harm groundwater and air quality. But the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy have called the practice safe and failed to link fracking to groundwater contamination.

“Expanding the use of natural gas through accelerated drilling and fracking will prove disastrous for the planet,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director Food & Water Watch. “If President Obama truly wants to curb climate change, he will listen to the science and ban fracking.”

The Obama administration has not set a target date for the rule to be finalized.

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