Big news today: Department of the Interior releases a disappointing draft rule for fracking

Earlier today the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), part of the Department of the Interior, issued a draft rule that would govern fracking under federal oil and gas leases. Many people have not heard of the BLM, but the agency manages 700 million acres of onshore subsurface mineral estate in 40 states throughout the nation-- acreage roughly the size of Argentina. Not all of this area has oil and gas resources, but much of it does.

These oil and gas resources belong to the American people, and the BLM manages them on our behalf. At the end of September, 2011, more than 38 million acres were under lease. Some of these resources are beneath federal land -- such as national forests, national wildlife refuges, and BLM public lands. But many are beneath private lands, including ranches and farms.

Today's announcement is a critical step forward -- the Obama administration has acknowledged the need to update rules that are 30 years old. Communities have been crying out for years about the need to take away the oil and gas industry's free pass to pollute. While the proposal intends to require operators to better manage fracking waste, disclose the chemicals used during fracking, and strengthen the actual wells put into the ground, more needs to be done. We need BLM to be a national leader when it comes protecting our lands, water and ultimately our health from fracking pollution, yet several states already have stronger protections in place than what the agency proposed today.

Some of our concerns:

  • The proposal would require oil and gas producers to report what chemicals they've used in fracking after a job is completed, but it does not require them to report beforehand what they plan to use. This information is important for communities to have beforehand so they know what chemicals will be stored and transported nearby, and have advance warning to test their drinking water for the right chemicals.  They shouldn't have to wait for this information.
  • Some of these chemicals may be kept secret if they involved proprietary formulas, but there is no clearly defined method for physicians, other health professionals, or first responders to gain access to these trade secrets if needed to treat a patient or in an emergency.
  • Fracking wastewater, which is often quite toxic, will still be allowed to be stored in open air waste pits. These pits can lead to groundwater or surface water contamination, dangerous air pollution, wildlife poisoning, and soil contamination. Instead, the BLM should have required this waste always be stored in enclosed tanks.
  • There are no standards for well construction, including casing and cementing, although a company will have to certify that the casing passed a mechanical integrity test.
  •  Companies will not have to identify nearby water wells or old abandoned oil or gas wells before fracking--known pathways for aquifer contamination, nor will they have to notify nearby residents.

There are other very important safeguards we think are missing from this proposal. Oil and gas operations are expanding rapidly with new technologies and into new areas, including closer and closer to where families live and children go to school.

There will be a public comment period where NRDC will be submitting much more detailed comments. We'll also let you know how you can submit your own comments to the BLM, so stay tuned.