New BLM fracking rules

New BLM fracking rulesOn Friday, August 23, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) closed public commentary on its first update of hydraulic fracturing regulations since the 1980s.

To date, a patchwork of federal regulatory exemptions has left fracking regulation up to the states.  While some believe localization is the key to efficient regulation of a growing industry, others lament the lack of national standards.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oversees approximately 700 million subsurface acres of Federal mineral estate and 56 million subsurface acres of Indian mineral estate across the United States.2

The proposed BLM fracking regulations are a step towards standardization—at least on federal lands.  Using a three pronged approach, the BLM update attempts ensure safer fracking and strengthen rules in key areas.

Fracking chemical disclosure

The new BLM rules would require companies to disclose the chemicals used in fracking fluid after the fracturing process has been completed.  Submission of chemical information would be done publicly through the website FracFocus, a site already used by many individual states for their own regulatory requirements2.  While companies would be allowed to omit chemicals protected as “trade secrets” from public disclosure, the BLM would have the right to be provided with this information upon request2.  However, unlike states such as Colorado, Texas, and Pennsylvania, the new BLM rules do not require disclosure to physicians or the medical community in cases of suspected health effects1.

Well casing integrity

well casing graphicWhile not directly related to fracking, methane migration from faulty well casings is one of the major risks to groundwater posed by oil and gas drilling in general.  While natural gas cannot migrate through shale source rock, it can move through shallower, more permeable rock formations.  As fresh water is also often found in shallow, permeable rock, leakage of natural gas into these formations can cause groundwater contamination.  A structurally sound well casing is imperative to preventing this type of water pollution.

The proposed BLM rules require drilling operators to complete a successful mechanical integrity test of their well casing before fracking can begin1.  Drillers would also be required to monitor and record pressures along the wellbore as fracking progresses2.  Finally the new rules would require the submission of a cement bond log on the surface casing of the well to demonstrate that risk to groundwater has been minimized.

However, the new provisions regarding casing integrity have been criticized due to their failure to address casing depth and construction. Currently, there are no established requirements for the construction and monitoring of intermediate and production casing1.  The proposed rules also fail to specify how far below usable groundwater well casing must extend1.

Produced water management

Finally, the BLM rules require companies to make plans for produced water transport and disposal.  Before beginning fracking operations, drillers on BLM land would have to submit an estimate of the amount of produced water expected and plans for its treatment or disposal1.  In this way, risky transport could be minimized and treatment facilities with the correct processing capabilities could be located in advance.

That said, the proposed rules fail to prohibit the use of open air pits for wastewater disposal—a practice that has been prohibited in many states1.  In fact, a recent EPA study found groundwater pollution in Wyoming linked to drilling waste disposal pits.  Furthermore, the new set of rules lacks any regulation of airborne emissions such as methane leakage.

How will BLM rules interact with state fracking regulations?

Undoubtedly, the BLM rules represent a significant new standard in states lacking a well developed regulatory framework.  However, in states with already strict fracking regulations, BLM regulations may simply seem like another power conflict.

So how is the federal agency walking the tightrope between national standardization and individual regulation?  First of all, it is important to note that drilling companies operating on federal land must comply with both BLM rules as well as state regulations.  As a result, BLM rules are not only coming under fire from state governments but also from industry players looking to minimize red tape.

In order to maintain balance between these groups, this latest draft of the new rules gives the BLM the power to approve “variances” of existing rules2.  In other words, individual states could negotiate with the BLM to tailor federal rules to fill in their own regulatory gaps and pare down sections that are redundant or more lenient.  The bottom line is that BLM rules would take precedence wherever state regulations are deemed to be weaker than federal laws2.

 

 

References:

1)       Blm’s proposed fracking rule. (2013). Earthworks,

2)       Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management. (2013). Oil and gas; hydraulic fracturing on indian lands

3)       Downing , B. (2013, August 20). Wyoming wants to be exempted from new blm fracking rules. Akron Beacon Journal

 

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