Interior Department on the right track regarding oil and gas, but some Members of Congress get it wrong

Earlier this week, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar held a public forum to discuss the best practices for hydraulic fracturing in oil and natural gas production. The forum included discussion by federal and state officials as well as representatives from industry and from environmental and sportsmen’s organizations. It was a good conversation, and the transcript is available on line. Federal officials, led by Secretary Salazar and White House Director of Energy and Climate Change Carol Browner, stated that natural gas should be developed on public land in a way that is protective of the environment, landscapes, and cultural resources, and made the point that we do not have to choose between a healthy economy and a healthy environment—we can have both. 

NRDC’s Executive Director, Peter Lehner, participated on a panel and highlighted critical issues: some locations that are too sensitive, and where the environmental risks are too high, should be off limits; wherever there is drilling, comprehensive best management practices should be required; and renewable energy and energy efficiency must be a critical part of our energy plan.

Peter, a former state official, also pointed out why federal regulations are so important. Most federal environmental programs are actually administered by the states, take into account local conditions, and rely on local regulators to know the local industry. Having state-tailored regulations is not inconsistent with having a federal standard, and having that federal standard assures citizens of different states that they are treated the same way, with the same standards, as elsewhere.

Secretary Salazar announced at this forum that the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management will be considering a policy regarding disclosure of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing. This would be a great step and provide the public with crucial information about chemicals used on public land and in split estate circumstances (where private landowners live above federally-managed oil and gas resources). This is important because hydraulic fracturing chemicals are implicated in drinking water contamination and other environmental harms.

Some Members of Congress jumped on this announcement. Congressman Doc Hastings of Washington state sent a letter to Secretary Salazar stating that disclosure of hydraulic fracturing chemicals would “threaten thousands of jobs, deepen the federal deficit through reduced revenues, and harm natural gas development and our nation's energy security." He also stated that “the concept of transparency” is in place and that “significant” efforts have already been made at the state level.

Congressman Rob Bishop of Utah was quoted in a news article as saying that State regulatory agencies are more than capable of carefully monitoring and managing energy development and water quality within their boundaries,” and that requiring disclosure of fracking chemicals would “inhibit domestic energy production.”

Let’s get beyond the rhetoric and look at the facts:

  • There is no basis for the claims that disclosure of hydraulic fracturing fluids would threaten jobs, hinder natural gas production, jeopardize energy security, or deepen the federal deficit. Earlier this year, the State of Wyoming issued a new rule that requires full disclosure of hydraulic fracturing chemicals. No companies opposed this rule, and companies are complying with it. There is no evidence that anyone has lost his or her job because of the new Wyoming rule. And the Congressmen seem to assume there are only costs associated with new rules, and no benefits--for example to human health, the environment, or worker safety. Of course any sound cost-benefit analysis must look at both.
  • A long list of oil and gas producers, as well as their trade associations, are on the record as supporting disclosure. On this topic, therefore, it is unclear whose views Congressmen Hastings and Bishop are representing.
  • Congressman Bishop is correct that states have the authority to monitor energy development and water quality. Most states, however, are not doing enough to protect the environment and health of their citizens. As I mentioned, Wyoming just issued new rules this year. As Tom Doll, Wyoming's Oil and Gas Supervisor, said at the DOI forum: Wyoming’s rules needed to be brought into "modern times." That is the case with most states where oil and gas production occurs—regulations have not been updated in years. Wyoming is the only state in the nation that requires public disclosure of all hydraulic fracturing chemicals used at each location. So Congressman Hasting’s comment that significant efforts have been made by states on this front is, unfortunately, just not accurate. While states have the authority to establish rules to increase the safety of hydraulic fracturing, state regulations vary quite widely, and federal regulations are essential to ensure citizens in every state can count on the same basic protections.

NRDC’s Peter Lehner made an excellent point at the DOI forum—those who claim that Americans must choose between their jobs and clean drinking water are people who for some reason don’t want industry and environmentalists to talk and come up with win-win solutions. But we know the win-win solutions are out there. This is America – if we can put a man on the moon, we can protect our drinking water while keeping our jobs.

The Department of the Interior is on the right track. It can lead the way by ensuring that the best available technologies are used by oil and gas producers on public lands, as well as offshore. And the agency can demonstrate that we can ensure clean air and clean water while serving the country’s economic and energy needs. We hope that the Department of the Interior requires public disclosure of hydraulic fracturing chemicals, and we also hope it goes further to require the full range of the best available technologies to protect the air, water, wildlife habitat, and stunning landscapes that it manages on behalf of the American people.