Federal Rules Set for Fracking

Wednesday, March 25, 2015 @ 12:03 PM gHale

Drilling safety is the major focus of the nation’s first major federal regulations on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which released last week.

The Interior Department began drafting the rules, focused on drilling safety, in President Obama’s first term after breakthroughs in fracking led to a surge in the production of oil and gas.

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The fracking boom has put the United States on track to soon become the world’s largest oil and gas producer. But environmentalists fear that the technique, which involves injecting a cocktail of chemicals deep underground to break up the rocks around oil and gas deposits, could contaminate surrounding water supplies and wildlife.

As the practice of fracking has soared, fights over how and whether to regulate it have broken out across the country. The states have jurisdiction over drilling on private and state-owned land, where the vast majority of fracking occurs in the United States. The new federal rules, by contrast, will cover about 100,000 oil and gas wells drilled on public lands, according to the Interior Department.

Still, Obama administration officials hope the federal rules will serve as a de facto standard for state legislatures grappling with their own regulations.

“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 the interior secretary, Sally Jewell.

Jewell, who oversaw the creation of the rules, noted while they would create standards only for wells drilled on public lands, “there are a number of states where these may be the only regulations they have.” The onus for creating further rules, she said, “must now be taken up in statehouses and boardrooms across the country.”

The regulations, which are to take effect in 90 days, will allow government workers to inspect and validate the safety and integrity of the concrete barriers that line fracking wells. They will require companies to publicly disclose the chemicals used in the fracturing process within 30 days of completing fracking operations, using an industry-run website called FracFocus.

Environmentalists take issue with the decision to rely on a site created by and for the fracking industry.

The rules will also set safety standards for how companies can store used fracking chemicals around well sites, and will require companies to submit detailed information on well geology to the Bureau of Land Management, a part of the Interior Department.

Oil and gas companies have resisted fracking regulations, fearing they could raise the cost of fracking and slow or freeze energy development.

The Independent Petroleum Association of America immediately filed a lawsuit challenging the regulations, calling it “a reaction to unsubstantiated concerns” and requesting that the regulations be set aside. “From California to Pennsylvania, 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,” said Barry Russell, the chief executive of the association.

Interior Department officials noted that in states that regulate fracking, companies are already complying with similar regulations. It estimated the new regulations would add about $5,500 to the cost of fracking each individual well — which it calculates as less than 1 percent of the total cost of drilling.

The new regulations should be the first in a series of rules governing fracking safety. The Obama administration will issue rules designed to curb the release of methane, a greenhouse gas, from fracking wells.

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