BLM Proposed Fracking Rules Don't Go Far Enough to Protect the Environment and Human Health

NRDC and a coalition of other environmental groups recently submitted comments on new rules proposed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) governing well stimulation*, including hydraulic fracturing, of oil and gas wells drilled on public land.

BLM is the agency responsible for regulating oil and gas development on more than 700 million acres of subsurface mineral estate. Much of this mineral estate lies beneath public lands that belong to all Americans, and more than 57 million of these acres lie beneath privately owned land. As the stewards of America’s public lands and natural resources, BLM has the opportunity and obligation to be a leader in developing these resources more responsibly – by enacting smart, comprehensive regulations to reduce the risks to air, water, wildlife, wildlands, and human health posed by modern oil and gas extraction practices.

While we fully support BLM’s efforts to update its rules regarding chemical disclosure, mechanical integrity, and waste water handling there are many additional improvements that must be made to BLM’s rules to address the full range of environmental and human health risks associated with well stimulation, including:

  • Putting sensitive areas off-limits: Even with the strongest possible regulation and oversight, the risks posed by oil and gas extraction can never be completely eliminated. As such, some places are simply too environmentally sensitive for any drilling, places like wilderness areas, watersheds that are significant sources of drinking water, critical habitat for endangered species, and others. BLM must work to identify categories of lands where well stimulation should be completely prohibited.
  • Appropriate setbacks: From the dangerous chemicals used in drilling and fracking, to toxic wastewater, to harmful air contaminants, to light and noise pollution, oil and gas extraction using well stimulation poses significant threats to the environment and public health. BLM must institute rules to keep oil and gas drilling and its related pollutants away from sensitive places like schools, homes, water wells, wildlands, and wildlife habitat.
  • Pre-frac chemical disclosure: Disclosing the chemicals that will be used in a well stimulation treatment before any activity takes place is crucial to managing the risks associated with spills and leaks, facilitating conversations between regulators and operators about less toxic alternatives, and baseline testing. As currently written in the proposed rules, operators will only have to disclose the chemicals they use after the fact. BLM must require pre-frac chemical disclosure.  Where the federal government owns oil and gas rights below private land, the private landowner and residents must be notified before fracking occurs so that they can document the pre-fracking conditions of the land, and the air and water quality.
  • Baseline water testing: Groundwater contamination is one of the most commonly cited concerns about hydraulic fracturing. Baseline data is essential to conducting a comprehensive scientific investigation of suspected water contamination. BLM should require operators to perform baseline characterization of all usable ground water and all surface water within a designated area of review, including testing for hydrocarbons and all proposed chemicals, before any activity begins.
  • Well construction: Proper oil and gas well construction is paramount in protecting groundwater. While BLM’s proposed rules for mechanical integrity testing are important, only sound well design and construction can ensure that mechanical integrity is achieved in the first place. BLM must revise and update its well construction rules to reflect technological advancements in oil and gas extraction techniques.
  • Wastewater Handling: Numerous studies have identified flowback and produced water pits as one of the most common sources of environmental impacts from oil and gas operations. Both unlined and lined pits pose serious risks to the environment and spills and leaks of flowback and produced water have a lasting environmental impact. BLM should prohibit the use of pits and/or centralized surface impoundments to capture or dispose of flowback water from Federal/Indian leases and instead require the use of closed-loop systems, in which all recovered fluid is stored in closed tanks.

According to BLM’s analysis, the costs imposed by these new proposed regulations are negligible. The oil and gas industry has criticized these estimates as being too low, but their own much higher cost estimates are poorly supported. The benefits to the environment and public health from strong, modern regulations that protect the public lands belonging to all Americans are incalculable.


*”Well stimulation” is a generic term that refers to activities performed to increase the flow of oil or natural gas to a well by modifying the properties of the rocks themselves, notably by increasing permeability, and includes things like acidizing and hydraulic fracturing.