Friday November 28th 2014

Interior Department Releases Draft Fracking Rule Lacking Basic Public Right-To-Know Measures

By Jessica Goad

This morning the U.S. Department of the Interior released new draft regulations on oversight of natural gas drilling on public lands.  The rule specifically addresses  public disclosure of drilling chemicals, well-construction techniques, and “flowback” water that returns to the surface after drilling.

This rule will only apply to public lands, where about 3,400 wells per year are hydraulically fractured.  Public lands produce 20% of the nation’s natural gas.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar issued a press release today:

“…it is critical that the public have full confidence that the right safety and environmental protections are in place. The proposed rule will modernize our management of well stimulation activities – including hydraulic fracturing – to make sure that fracturing operations conducted on public and Indian lands follow common-sense industry best practices.”

The Interior Department should be commended for modernizing rules that were last updated in 1988 — in particularly for creating new provisions that strengthen the government’s ability to regulate the construction and oversight of wells.  However, the rule lacks a handful of basic public right-to-know measures.

It would require natural gas drillers to disclose the chemicals being used after the fracking has taken place, not beforehand.  This makes baseline testing of water quality nearly impossible, as local communities will be unable to know what exactly to test for.  As Center for American Progress Chairman and Counselor John Podesta put it:

“Disclosure after the fact not only jeopardizes public health but effectively cuts the public out of discussions that affect their communities.”

Additionally, the Interior Department is “working with” the Groundwater Protection Council to determine whether the actual public listing of chemicals can be done on its FracFocus.org website.  The Groundwater Protection Council is comprised of state oil and gas regulators, who often find themselves both promoting drilling and policing it.  A recent investigation by Greenwire found that 40% of state oil and gas regulators have financial ties to the industry.

Hydraulic fracturing is a natural gas drilling technique that involves pumping millions of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals underground in order to help stimulate wells. Whether or not chemicals used in the drilling process can contaminate water has been the subject of intense debate.  The Environmental Protection Agency recently found at least one instance where hydraulic fracturing was implicated in drinking water contamination. That report was backed up by an independent analysis.

The Interior Department should require companies to disclose the chemicals that they will use before hydraulic fracturing takes place, as well as make the lists available on a public website.

In addition to these standards, long term natural gas development could be made more safe if exemptions from various federal environmental laws are repealed, the National Academy of Sciences conducts a lifecycle study of natural gas’ greenhouse gas emissions relative to coal, and EPA’s voluntary Natural Gas Star program for methane is made mandatory.

Jessica Goad is Manager of Research and Outreach for the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress.

This article was originally posted on Climate Progress