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Obama's controversial new fracking rules, explained

A Consol Energy Horizontal Gas Drilling Rig explores the Marcellus Shale outside the town of Waynesburg, PA on April 13, 2012.
A Consol Energy Horizontal Gas Drilling Rig explores the Marcellus Shale outside the town of Waynesburg, PA on April 13, 2012.
Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images
  1. On Friday, the Obama administration put out the first new federal rules for hydraulic fracturing in more than 30 years, moving to address some of the growing environmental and health concerns around the practice.
  2. The new standards, by the Bureau of Land Management, will require oil and gas drillers on federal lands to disclose the chemicals they use in fracking. Companies will also face stricter standards in both constructing wells and disposing wastewater afterward.
  3. The rules will only apply to wells operating on federal and Indian lands, which account for just 11 percent of gas drilling and 5 percent of oil drilling in the US. Still, the standards could set a baseline for state regulations, which govern the vast bulk of US fracking.
  4. Oil and gas companies oppose the new rules, arguing that regulation should be left to states. Environmentalists argue that state rules are too patchy and inconsistent — though some green groups said these new rules were too weak and didn't go far enough in requiring chemical disclosure.
  5. 27 Republicans have backed new legislation in Congress to block the rules, arguing that they could slow oil and gas production.

The long fight over new federal rules on fracking

Anti-fracking activists gather outside of the Colorado Convention Center while an Oil and Gas Task Force meeting was taking place on February 24, 2015. (Andy Cross/Denver Post/Getty Images)

Fracking has arguably been the biggest energy story in the United States in the last decade. Since the mid-2000s, companies have found it profitable to use hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling to extract oil and gas from shale formations in places like Texas, North Dakota, Colorado, and Pennsylvania.

This has led to a staggering energy boom around the country — the United States is producing more natural gas than it ever has before, while oil production has surged to levels not seen since the 1980s.

But fracking has also attracted plenty of controversy. The process involves pumping water, sand, and chemicals underground at very high pressures to crack open rock layers and release the oil or gas trapped inside. Those chemicals, in particular, have raised environmental and health concerns. What if gas or chemicals leak from wells into nearby groundwater? What happens to the chemical-laced wastewater after it gets pumped back out of the well?

How a well is fracked (ProPublica)

There's evidence that those concerns aren't unfounded. In states like Pennsylvania and Texas, leaks from poorly constructed gas wells seem to have allowed natural gas to contaminate nearby drinking water, one 2014 study found. Separately, in 2013, three treatment plants in Pennsylvania were fined for dumping waste into the Allegheny River.

Individual states like North Dakota, Texas, and Pennsylvania tend to have their own set of rules governing things like standards for well construction or rules for managing wastewater. But these rules tend to vary from state to state, and critics have long called on the federal government to set more consistent rules. Oil and gas companies, for their part, have fought against this, arguing that state regulators have the best knowledge of what's suitable for particular areas.

Over the past four years, the Bureau of Land Management, which governs US federal lands, has been lobbied hard by both sides as it has been crafting rules on fracking. Those rules have now been released.

The new rules only apply to federal lands — but they'll provide a template for states

On Friday, the Bureau of Land Management unveiled its new fracking rules. There are a few key parts:

  • Oil and gas companies operating on federal and Indian lands will have to publicly disclose the chemicals they use 30 days after fracking a well. They'll use FracFocus, an industry website for self-disclosure.
  • Drillers will have to conduct well integrity tests on every well they drill to ensure that the cement is holding up and nothing can leak out to nearby groundwater.
  • Companies will have to store the wastewater that flows back out after fracking in tanks — they won't be allowed to use pits.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell argued that these rules were necessary to keep up with new drilling techniques: "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," she said in a statement.

These rules will only apply to federal lands — not state or private lands. There are currently about 92,000 wells operating on federal lands, most of them fracking wells, accounting for about 11 percent of gas drilling and 5 percent of oil drilling.

That doesn't sound like much. But many states are expected to use these federal standard as a minimum when setting their own rules. It's a sign that the federal government is slowly moving toward creating a single nationwide standard on fracking.

Industry says the rules are unnecessary. Environmentalists say they're too weak.

Men with Cabot Oil and Gas work on a natural gas valve at a hydraulic fracturing site on January 18, 2012 in South Montrose, Pennsylvania. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The industry argument: The oil and gas industry, for its part, has strongly opposed new federal rules. "BLM's rule is a step in the wrong direction," said Frank J. Macchiarola of the American Natural Gas Association. "We are disappointed that the rule did not appropriately recognize the extensive regulatory structures already in place in states across this country. This overly burdensome approach adds an unneeded regulatory layer."

Many conservatives in Congress seem to agree. On Friday, 27 Republicans introduced a bill to block the rules from taking effect.

The Department of Interior, for its part, estimates that the rules will add about 0.0025 percent to the cost of drilling a well, which currently averages about $5.4 million.

The environmental argument: Environmentalists, meanwhile, criticized the rules for not going far enough. In particular, some green groups wanted drillers to disclose the chemicals they used before they start drilling — not 30 days afterwards. And, they say, the rules do nothing to limit the chemicals that could be used or restrict drilling near ecologically sensitive areas.

Bruce Hill, a geologist with the Clean Air Task Force, highlighted a couple of places where he thought the rule was too weak:

  • The rule allows exemption of wells in states that demonstrate they will satisfy the objective of the regulation. We are concerned that BLM will allow some states to use weak rules as justification for exempting wells within their borders;
  • The rule does not make sensitive environmental areas or communities off-limits to fracking, or even protect them with buffer or setback rules;
  • Acid stimulation is not covered;
  • The rule exempts disclosure of frack fluid chemicals based on industry's trade secret arguments, leaving public regulators and emergency responders with inadequate information if there were a chemical emergency or if a public health problem develops near sites.

There are likely further rules to come

This is unlikely to be the last attempt to regulate fracking. The Obama administration has also been working on steps to curb methane leaks from oil and gas operations, which can exacerbate climate change.

BLM is expected to come up with a new rule in the next several months to address the flaring of methane from public lands. Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency has been working on its own measures to curtail methane leaks from oil and gas — including fracking wells.

On top of that, the EPA is working on a multi-year study of the health risks from fracking. Depending on the outcome of that report, the agency could very well decide to impose further regulations on fracking on both state and private land.

Further reading

-- Leaky wells, not fracking itself, are polluting water in Pennsylvania and Texas

-- After years of debate, New York will ban fracking

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