Obama Administration Releases First Fracking Rules in 30 Years

Today, the Obama administration unveiled the first federal fracking regulations in over 30 years, setting rules regarding chemical disclosures, wastewater disposal, and certain well construction standards. The rules, announced by Interior Secretary Sally Jewel, explicitly apply only to drilling on federal lands—which accounts for about 11 percent of domestic natural gas production, and 5 percent of oil production. However, the proposed regulations have been closely watched by the oil and gas industry, not only because the Interior department is the largest landholder in the United States, but also as they may be adopted as guidelines for many states. The rules cover the approximately 100,000 wells already located on federal lands. The new rules require companies completing fracking operations to do or allow the following:
  • Submit detailed information to the Bureau of Land Management about the both the geology around well sites and known faults, as well as the depth of drilling and estimated volume of water to be used.
  • More closely monitor well cementing, and allow government workers to inspect and validate the safety and integrity of the cement barriers that line fracking wells.
  • Follow safety protocols for storage of chemicals around well sites.
  • Disclose the chemicals used in a fracking operation to the FracFocus website once the job is completed.
  • Better manage wastewater—both the flowback of water used in the fracking operation itself, as well as the produced water that naturally emerges from the shale formation with the oil or natural gas—which can contain a variety of hazardous materials, must be stored in enclosed, covered, or netted above-ground storage tanks to prevent spills and contaminating groundwater.
  • Implement new features to the FracFocus website, to reduce the amount of human error in disclosures, as well as expand the public’s ability to search records, enable better data extraction, and update educational information about chemical use.
Secretary Jewel emphasized that existing regulations on hydraulic fracturing have not kept pace with current fracking technology. The new rules, which will take effect in 90 days, are a compromise of the interests of the oil and gas industry and the environmental community. For example, only requiring chemical disclosures after fracking operation is complete is a concession to industry, while requirements to cover wastewater storage tanks is a win for environmentalists. The financial burden to industry is expected to be slight—Neil Kornze, head of the Bureau of Land Management, says the fracking rule comes with "a modest cost," adding about one fourth of 1 percent to the cost of drilling a well. Jewel emphasized that the oil and gas industry should try and embrace the rules, arguing, “Thoughtful regulation can help [producers], because it reassures the public." However, there’s already been a backlash from both industry and their congressional allies. Although environmentalists are disappointed the rules are not more rigorous, industry representatives such as the American Petroleum Institute argue that the rules will only further disincentivize oil and gas production on federal lands. Meanwhile, in Congress, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Sen. Jim Inhofe have already introduced a bill that would block the rule, stating instead that states have the sole authority to regulate fracking on federal lands.