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Progress and Controversy Arrive With New Rules for Fracking on Public Lands

An initial review of rules issued by the Interior Department shows the federal government has taken important steps to protect drinking water resources, while not adopting the strictest regulations in place in some states.

The new rules announced Friday by the Obama administration governing how energy companies frack for oil and gas on federal lands managed to anger environmentalists and the industry alike, but represent a significant step toward protecting drinking water resources in some of the most heavily drilled parts of the country.

The rules mark the first time the federal government has stepped in to enact protections to limit risks posed by a technology that has been both criticized for causing environmental harm and credited with making the nation one of the leading producers of oil and gas.

Fracking involves injecting large volumes of water, sand and toxic chemicals underground with explosive force that fractures the rock and helps it release trapped hydrocarbons. It has been associated with water and air pollution almost every place that it is practiced, and become a lighting rod for environmental opposition to domestic energy production. ProPublica has been covering issues related to fracking since 2008, including the gaps in federal oversight and the government’s consideration of ways to address it.

The rules exclude drilling on private land and apply only to lands or mineral resources directly managed by the U.S. Department of Interior, including tribal lands, which make up a relative minority of all the wells drilled in the United States. They fall short of some of the most stringent fracking regulations already in place in some states, but establish a baseline of best practices and update arcane federal drilling rules almost three decades old.

“Many of the regulations on the books at the Interior Department have not kept pace with advances in technology and modern drilling methods,” said Sally Jewell, Secretary of the Interior and a former petroleum engineer, in her statement announcing the new policy. “Our decades-old regulations do not contemplate current techniques in which hydraulic fracturing is increasingly complex.”

The new rules promise to improve basic protections for drinking water by requiring drilling procedures that have long been standard on waste injection wells used by the drilling industry, but which have not been applied to new oil and gas wells used to extract resources.

They are lengthy and complicated, but an initial review of documents released by the Interior Department shows they address four important areas:

  • They will require drilling companies to encase their wells in cement through vulnerable areas where they could leak into groundwater, and will require testing of that cement to ensure it is properly in place.
  • Pressure tests, called mechanical integrity tests, will be required in order to confirm that the wells can contain the extraordinary forces of fracking, before the fracking process itself can be performed.
  • A geological analysis of a well site will be required before fracking takes place, so that the reach of those fractures and their potential to intersect with water sources or other wells can be predicted.
  • The temporary use of open waste pits – large ponds containing water and pollutants removed from the wells after fracking – will be prohibited except in rare circumstances.

These core requirements directly address many of the known causes of water pollution associated with new drilling efforts and fracking across the country. Where methane and other pollutants have escaped wells into water supplies, it has often been because the cement encapsulation of the wells was incomplete, or the pressure of fracking caused them to fail. Waste pits have been documented sources of drinking water contamination in hundreds of cases.

There are other components to the rules as well. They will enhance transparency by establishing a record of tests and making public details about which wells are fracked and what condition those wells are in. Drillers will also be required to release more information about what chemicals they inject underground.

Still, the rules are unlikely to satisfy some of the industry’s most ardent critics, in large part because they are less stringent than versions that the government had been considering earlier in its drafting process, and they fall short of what several states already do to oversee fracking. Among other issues, they continue to allow drilling companies to protect trade secrets and not disclose all of the chemicals they use to the public or to doctors.

Some see the rules as both a welcome acknowledgement that the environmental risks of fracking need to be addressed and as a missed opportunity.

“The bottom line is: these rules fail to protect the nation’s public lands—home to our last wild places, and sources of drinking water for millions of people—from the risks of fracking,” said Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a statement. “More than ever, this underscores the urgent need to get better protections in place around the country.”

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