Interior: New fracking rules are good for public, industry

Trade groups sue; environmentalists give mixed reviews

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Oil and gas infrastructure sits on federally managed land in Utah. The Interior Department released new rules Friday for hydraulic fracturing on federal and tribal lands.

Jamie Smith Hopkins/Center for Public Integrity

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced new rules for hydraulic fracturing on federal and tribal lands Friday, arguing that the cost of stronger water and air protections will pay off for industry as well as people living near oil and gas wells.

“I don’t think anybody would say it’s common sense to keep regulations in place that were created over 30 years ago,” Jewell, a conservationist and former petroleum engineer, said in a conference call with reporters. “I know there are comments coming out of Congress trying to undermine this, but I think at the end of the day, the industry certainly recognizes that thoughtful regulation can help them, because it reassures the public that there are rules in place that protect them.”

Industry groups see the Interior Department's action differently. The Independent Petroleum Association of America and Western Energy Alliance immediately filed suit over the rule — which includes a ban on waste pits — and called it “a reaction to unsubstantiated concerns.” The groups contend that the federal government should leave such regulations to the states.

U.S. Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said Friday that he has introduced legislation to require that.

The Interior Department said only 13 of the 32 states with oil and gas leases on federally managed land have fracking regulation in place. The agency calls the federal rule a baseline standard and said it includes a variance process for states and tribes with equal or tighter protections.

More than 100,000 oil and gas wells have been sunk on federally managed lands, and about 90 percent of those now drilled use fracking techniques, the agency says.

Reaction from environmental groups Friday was mixed. The Natural Resources Defense Council gave the new requirements a thumbs-down, saying they “put the interests of big oil and gas above people’s health.” Earthworks said the rule didn’t go far enough but praised two of the standards — well-integrity tests and the ban on waste pits — as “a significant improvement over business-as-usual.”

Rather than temporarily storing waste fluids in pits, operators on federally managed land will have to use storage tanks, except in very limited circumstances where tanks could not be used. Janice Schneider, Interior’s assistant secretary for land and minerals management, said many operators have told her they’re using tanks already and others said it “would not be a substantial issue” to switch.

Tanks would reduce risks to air and water, the agency said. Emissions from oil and gas sites can contribute to air pollution, including ozone — a particular problem in northeast Utah, where many wells are on federally managed lands.

The new rules, due to take effect in 90 days, also require companies to disclose fracking chemicals to the FracFocus website so the information is publicly available.

The rules were four years in the making. Reaction to the proposal, including more than 1.5 million comments, highlighted what Jewell said was “a lot of public concern” about oil and gas development, “particularly about the safety of groundwater and the impact of these operations.”

Such concerns have been raised across the country in the last decade as technological advances allowed companies to dramatically increase oil and gas production in the United States, bringing drilling booms to populated areas. The Center for Public Integrity, InsideClimate News and The Weather Channel spent months investigating community impacts from oil and gas sites in Texas.

Interior said Friday that it estimates the cost of its new rule at less than one-quarter of 1 percent of the total expense of drilling a well, under $14,000 on average.

The Western Energy Alliance, a trade group for oil and gas companies,  estimated the additional cost at nearly $97,000 per well in 2013, while the rules were  evolving. The group said Friday that it anticipated the cost would be even higher, given additional requirements such as waste storage in tanks.

“This is a classic case of federal overreach, with the government taking on even more control that will stifle economic growth and job creation while limiting the return to American taxpayers on the energy they all own,” Tim Wigley, president of the alliance, said in a statement.

Center for Public Integrity reporter Talia Buford contributed to this article.

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