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Interior Department Issues Rule to Ensure 'Safe' Fracking in Indian Country

U.S. Department of the Interior's new fracking rules for public and tribal lands purport safety, but rile Republicans.
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Protests, concerns and studies about the dangers of the hydraulic fracturing method of extracting oil and gas from shale formations are rampant these days, but new rules from the federal government promise to make the practice safe.

On March 20 the U.S. Department of the Interior released rules to “support safe and responsible hydraulic fracturing on public and American Indian lands,” as the U.S. Department of the Interior put it on March 20. “The commonsense standards will improve safety and help protect groundwater by updating requirements for well-bore integrity, wastewater disposal and public disclosure of chemicals.”

These “commonsense standards” are geared toward improving safety and protecting groundwater with updates to infrastructure, wastewater disposal and disclosing the chemicals used to the public, Interior said in a statement. The rules apply to the more than 100,000 oil and gas wells on lands managed by the federal government, 90 percent of which use hydraulic fracturing, the department said.

“Current federal well-drilling regulations are more than 30 years old, and they simply have not kept pace with the technical complexities of today’s hydraulic fracturing operations,” U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said in the statement. “This updated and strengthened rule provides a framework of safeguards and disclosure protocols that will allow for the continued responsible development of our federal oil and gas resources. As we continue to offer millions of acres of public lands for conventional and renewable energy production, it is absolutely critical the public have confidence that transparent and effective safety and environmental protections are in place.”

The rule takes effect in June, and includes, among other things, tightened monitoring of well integrity, and the installation of strong cement barriers between where wastewater wells are drilled and water supplies. Companies will also have to publicly disclose the chemicals they’re using via the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) through the website FracFocus; increase standards for interim storage of waste fluids so they don’t contaminate air or water, or endanger wildlife; and requiring companies to assemble and submit detailed information on geology, depth and location of existing wells.

“This rule will protect public health and the environment during and after hydraulic fracturing operations at a modest cost while both respecting the work previously done by the industry, the states and the tribes and promoting the adoption of more protective standards across the country,” said Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Management Janice Schneider in the Interior statement. “It will be implemented in the most efficient way possible to avoid duplication or unnecessary activities by industry, other regulators, or BLM staff. We know how important it is to get this right.”

Four years of research and public involvement went into developing the rule, Interior said, as well as detailed study of state and tribal regulations, as well as consultations with tribal regulators and other groups and entities.

“The result of this careful consultation is a rule that will enhance environmental protection in a thoughtful and cost-effective way,” the Interior Department said. “BLM estimates the new rule will cost less than one-fourth of one percent of the cost of drilling a well, based on the Energy Information Administration’s average per well cost of $5.4 million.”

Nevertheless, Republicans lost no time in jumping on the regulations as over-restrictive and running counter to tribal economic interests.

“The Bureau of Land Management’s rule is a solution looking for a problem,” said U.S. Senator John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) in a statement criticizing the regulations as redundant. “For years, Wyoming and other western states have enforced the country’s most aggressive hydraulic fracturing regulations—regulations which also apply to federal lands within their borders.”

An opinion piece in the Bismarck Tribune on March 29 went even further, calling the fracking rule a detriment to tribes.

“The Department of the Interior’s new fracking regulations make it harder for American Indians to compete and to have their shot at the American dream,” wrote Jillian Kay Melchior in the Bismarck Tribune. “Unless the Obama administration reconsiders, tally this down as just one more broken promise.”

The Tribune piece did not note or mention the concern over fracking on the Navajo Nation—under leases granted by sometimes ill-informed allottees—or the practice’s propensity for causing earthquakes.

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But the BLM maintained that the fracking rule was developed in close consultation with tribes.

“This rule was informed and shaped by the technical expertise, interests and concerns of all of our partners, and builds on the work of states and tribes to ensure best practices on a nationwide basis,” said BLM Director Neil Kornze. “The new regulations are essential to our mutual efforts to protect the environment and the communities that depend on vital water, land and wildlife resources. This rule is good government.”