May 17, 2013 8:00:53 AM
WASHINGTON -- Companies that drill for oil and natural gas on federal lands will be required to disclose publicly the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing operations, the Obama administration said Thursday. The new "fracking" rule replaces a draft proposed last year that was withdrawn amid industry complaints that federal regulation could hinder an ongoing boom in natural gas production.
The new draft rule relies on an online database used by Colorado and 10 other states to track the chemicals used in fracking operations. FracFocus.org is a website formed by industry and intergovernmental groups in 2011 that allows users to gather well-specific data on thousands of drilling sites.
The proposed rule also sets standards for proper construction of wells and disposal of wastewater.
Fracking involves pumping huge volumes of water, sand and chemicals underground to split open rocks to allow oil and gas to flow. Improved technology has allowed energy companies to gain access to huge stores of natural gas underneath states from Wyoming to New York but has raised widespread concerns about alleged groundwater contamination and even earthquakes.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell called the proposed rule a "common-sense update" that increases safety while also providing flexibility and improving coordination with states and Indian tribes.
Current regulations date back to 1982, when the Sony Walkman was considered cutting-edge, Jewell said.
"As we continue to offer millions of acres of America's public lands for oil and gas development, it is important that the public has full confidence that the right safety and environmental protections are in place," she said.
But environmental groups said the proposal was weaker than last year's plan and represents a nearly complete capitulation to industry, which had lobbied heavily against the earlier rule. Interior's Bureau of Land Management has held at least 11 meetings this year with industry groups as well as fracking opponents.
"Comparing today's rule governing fracking on public lands with the one proposed a year earlier, it is clear what happened: the Bureau of Land Management caved to the wealthy and powerful oil and gas industry and left the public to fend for itself," said Jessica Ennis, a spokeswoman for the environmental group Earthjustice.
The BLM appears to have settled for "shoddy protections peddled by the oil and gas industry," Ennis said.
Erik Milito, director of upstream and industry operations for the American Petroleum Institute, said the federal rule was unnecessary, since state rules and state-based tools, such as FracFocus, are already in place to ensure responsible drilling.
Changes made since last year "attempt to better acknowledge the state role," Milito said, but the Obama administration "has yet to answer the question why BLM is moving forward with these requirements in the first place."