After more than four years of effort, the Obama administration last week finalized new rules on hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking,” on federal lands. Critics on both sides of the fracking wars descended immediately, picking the regulations apart for being either too tough or too lax. Industry groups filed lawsuits within an hour of the rules coming down, and their Republican allies submitted a bill to stop the standards. Left-wing politicians and pressure groups complained that the administration didn’t take their advice and issue tighter restrictions.
One side wants a harsh regulatory crackdown or ban on fracking, while the other side opposes any additional federal requirements. Instead of accepting either flawed mind-set, the Interior Department staked out the sensible place in the debate: Fracking has valuable economic and environmental benefits, and it can be done with relative safety, as long as the right rules are in place.
Fracking refers to the technique of pumping pressurized water and chemicals deep under the ground to break up rock formations in which oil and natural gas are trapped. Drillers have used the process for decades. But the scale, complexity and ubiquity of fracking operations are unique to the past decade. Energy companies are now unlocking vast reserves of fuel, accessing much of it from wells on the 700 million subsurface acres that the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management oversees. Daily production on these parcels has increased 81 percent since 2008. There are now about 2,800 fracking operations on federal land every year.
The Interior Department understandably wants to ensure that its standards for oil and gas operations conducted on public land, which haven’t been updated in decades, reflect the reality of the fracking boom and allay concerns about water contamination near well sites. The department will require that the cement meant to separate wells from groundwater is thoroughly tested before operations begin, for example. It will also require that water flowing back to the surface be collected in above-ground storage tanks rather than in lined pits, and it will insist that drillers list which chemicals they used on an industry website within 30 days. Interior reckons that the requirements will cost a measly $11,400 per well, a fraction of a percentage of total drilling costs.
Among other things, environmentalists insist that drillers should have to publicly disclose the chemicals they intend to use before beginning a job. Interior counters that it’s more important to know what drillers used than it is to have a guess about what they will use before beginning work. The industry, meanwhile, says the states are already doing an adequate job regulating fracking within their borders and that Interior should just make sure those rules are followed. The Obama administration has an answer for that, too: The federal government has leased out public land for oil and gas production in 32 states, and the rules across them are simply too inconsistent. Besides, Interior will defer to states with rules as strong as or stronger than the ones it released Friday.
Unlike the various special interests around the country, the Obama administration is getting the balance right on fracking.