Fracking Frenzy

Although the states primarily oversee hydraulic fracturing, the Obama administration has created an interagency working group to coordinate federal research on the issue ...

Policymakers Continue to Debate Fracking Regs to Best Protect Water Resources

By Patrick Crow, Washington Correspondent

Although the states primarily oversee hydraulic fracturing, the Obama administration has created an interagency working group to coordinate federal research on the issue, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is continuing a multi-year study that eventually could lay the groundwork for increased federal regulations.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) recently updated its proposed rule governing hydraulic fracturing (fracking) practices on the lands that it manages. Those include Indian reservations, national forests, wildlife refuges, and other federal properties.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell explained, "This administration's priority is to continue to expand safe and responsible domestic energy production. In line with that goal, we are proposing some common sense updates that increase safety while also providing flexibility and facilitating coordination with states and tribes."

The BLM said the update keeps the key elements of its initial rule proposed in May 2012. It would require lease operators to disclose the chemicals they use, verify that fracturing fluids don't contaminate groundwater and have a plan for handling fluids that routinely are recovered on the surface.

The fracking issue is so contentious that the proposed rule received more than 177,000 public comments. Oil and gas companies warned it could add layers of bureaucracy that would create confusion in the regulatory process and significantly slow domestic energy production.

The National Association of Counties opposed the rule, urging the BLM to continue to defer the regulation of hydraulic fracturing to states that already have regulations in place.

"Proactive state regulations have the highest likelihood for successful protection of water resources because they are best able to respond to localized impacts and issues, as opposed to a redundant federal hydraulic fracturing rule," it said.

The Sierra Club said, "Although no amount of regulation will make fracking acceptable, the proposed BLM rules fail even to take obvious steps to make it safer. This proposal does not require drillers to disclose all chemicals being used for fracking and continues to allow trade-secret exemptions for the oil and gas industry. There is no requirement for baseline water testing and no setback requirements to govern how close to homes and schools drilling can happen."

Senators David Vitter (R-La.) and Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) recently berated the EPA for investigating fracking at a site near Pavillion, Wyo. The senators claimed that the discontinued inquiry was based on politics, not credible science.

"The EPA has been on a witch hunt to shut down hydraulic fracturing but, yet again, the evidence has determined it is safe," Vitter said. "This is the EPA's third strike out on hydraulic fracturing."

Inhofe said, "The EPA thought it had a rock solid case linking groundwater contamination to hydraulic fracturing in Pavillion, but we knew all along that the science was not there. It is about time that EPA officials admit this is true. Fracking is well regulated by the states, and there is no need for federal intervention."

The senators said the EPA investigations have cast doubt on the validity of the agency's ongoing study into the impacts of fracking on drinking water resources.

One thing is clear: The fracking controversy is underscoring the basic conflict between energy and water demand.

Recently, 23 members of the House of Representatives urged Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to release an overdue federal "roadmap" for managing the development of energy resources without harming the quality and supply of water supplies.

The 2005 Energy Policy Act required the Department of Energy (DOE) to review the connections between water and energy and recommend policy guidance for Congress. The general review was submitted to Congress in 2007, but the roadmap portion, which was drafted some time ago, has yet to be released.

The Committee for an American Clean Energy Agenda, which is comprised of 120 citizen organizations, is also pushing for the roadmap. Pam Solo, president of the Civil Society Institute, said, "Without this information, Congress is flying blind when it comes to developing an energy policy so reliant on the availability of fresh water."

Alex Formuzis, the Natural Resources Defense Council vice president for media affairs, said his group filed a Freedom of Information Act request regarding the roadmap. "The documents we obtained didn't provide any information as to why DOE is delaying the release. It's anyone's guess."

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