Blowout Exposes Gaps in Federal and State Oversight of Fracking

A New Mexico oil well owned by Parko Oil LLC recently experienced a blowout, resulting in a spill of more than 8,400 gallons of fracturing fluid, oil, and water. The blowout occurred when a nearby well owned by Encana was being hydraulically fractured and the fracturing fluids intersected the Parko well. According to a news report, the two wells are about half a mile apart. Both wells are located on federal land, meaning that both the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division (NMOCD) are responsible for regulating these wells.

Despite that fact that Parko Oil reported five previous incidents to NMOCD when nearby fracturing jobs communicated with its wells, it appears that regulators did not take any steps to ensure that the Encana fracturing job wouldn’t impact the Parko wells. If the BLM or NMOCD had acted sooner, it is possible this incident could have been prevented. The spill resulted in soil contamination, but it is not clear whether groundwater may also have been polluted. The agencies have not yet assessed whether the Parko well was damaged below the surface. If the casing or cement cracked due to the fracturing pressure, fluids could have migrated into groundwater.

Neither the BLM nor NMOCD – nor any state for that matter – requires operators to identify, assess, and monitor wells that could be impacted by nearby fracturing. Yet scientists have long recognized that fluids injected underground could intersect a nearby well and that this could put groundwater at risk. In fact, when the EPA created the Underground Injection Control (UIC) program in the late 1970s, they listed this as one of the six key pathways by which injected fluids could end up contaminating drinking water. To reduce this risk, they created a cornerstone concept of the UIC program called the “area of review,” which requires operators of UIC wells to look for and fix any such pathways. However these rules don’t apply to hydraulic fracturing because it is exempt from the UIC program.

More recently, oil and gas regulators in Alberta, Canada recognized that communication between wells during fracturing is a serious risk to well integrity and groundwater, and created requirements to reduce the likelihood of occurrence. Similarly, Enform, a Canadian oil and gas industry safety association, published recommended practices to manage the risk of communication.

The incident in New Mexico is obviously troubling for the neighboring communities and environment. But it also raises serious questions about how the federal government oversees oil and gas development on public lands. The administration is in the process of updating its rules for hydraulic fracturing on federal land, and so far what we have seen is woefully inadequate to protect public health. And this latest incident does not inspire any greater confidence. 

In both our 2012 and 2013 comments on the BLM proposed rules for well stimulation on federal land, NRDC recommended that BLM add regulations requiring operators to address the risk of communication between wells during stimulation. So far the BLM has not done so. Hopefully this incident in New Mexico will be a wakeup call. This is a serious issue and the BLM must address it to help reduce the environmental and public health risks of oil and gas operations.

After all, public lands are not only some of America’s most beloved wild places, but they supply drinking water for millions of people—from large municipal supplies like that of D.C. and Denver, to private wells. The federal government has a responsibility to protect our heritage, and our health, from the risks of fracking playing out right before our eyes.