The Obama administration on Friday unveiled the nation's first major federal regulations on fracking, sparking negative responses from green groups, who say the "toothless" new rules don't go far enough to protect public health and the environment and represent a "giveaway" to the fossil fuel industry.
The Interior Department regulations (pdf), the result of four years of study and debate, apply only to public lands—despite the fact that the vast majority of oil and gas drilling activity takes place on private lands.
Still, about 100,000 oil and gas wells operate on federally owned territory, including tribal land, and about 90 percent of them employ fracking techniques.
"This country needs real climate leadership from President Obama, not weak regulations that do nothing to stop the devastating impacts of climate disruption."
—Kate DeAngelis, Friends of the Earth
According to the Bureau of Land Management, key components of the rule include:
- New well-construction requirements to ensure the protection of groundwater supplies;
- Increased transparency by requiring companies to promptly and publicly disclose chemicals used fracking operations to the BLM through the website FracFocus;
- Higher standards for wastewater storage.
"Current federal well-drilling regulations are more than 30 years old and they simply have not kept pace with the technical complexities of today’s hydraulic fracturing operations," said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. "This updated and strengthened rule provides a framework of safeguards and disclosure protocols that will allow for the continued responsible development of our federal oil and gas resources."
But environmental activists argued that the new regulations are anything but responsible.
"This fracking rule is merely a continuation of Obama’s harmful all-of-the-above energy policy that emphasizes natural gas development over protection of public health and the environment," said Kate DeAngelis, climate and energy campaigner of Friends of the Earth. "This country needs real climate leadership from President Obama, not weak regulations that do nothing to stop the devastating impacts of climate disruption. President Obama should use his authority to keep fossil fuels in the ground by placing a ban on federal fossil fuel leasing."
Multiple organizations said that the only way to address the well-documented dangers of fracking was to ban the practice altogether, as New York state did late last year.
"Our precious public lands have and are continuing to be sacrificed by the Obama Administration, only for the short-term profit of the oil and gas industry," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. "Our work will continue to truly protect the millions of acres of federal lands that will remain in harm's way until fracking is halted entirely."
"Instead of following the lead of New York in banning fracking, the Obama Administration has devised fracking regulations that are nothing more then a giveaway to the oil and gas industry."
—Mark Ruffalo, Americans Against Fracking
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Hauter went on to thank U.S. Reps. Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.) and Jan Schakowsky (D–Ill.), who plan to reintroduce it this session to ban fracking on all federal lands.
Charging the BLM with overseeing fracking on federal lands is akin to letting the fox watch the hen house, according to Americans Against Fracking, an umbrella group representing more than 250 organizations from across the country who support banning fracking:
The BLM has a history of insufficient regulation that has put the public and the environment at risk. It currently oversees 100,000 oil and gas wells on public lands, but the Associated Press has found that the agency has failed to inspect 4 in 10 new oil and gas wells deemed by well operators as “high-risk” for environmental damage and water contamination. Furthermore, Cornell University scientists discovered that newer oil and gas wells drilled between 2000 and 2012 are more likely to leak methane than older ones.
"[I]nstead of following the lead of New York in banning fracking, the Obama Administration has devised fracking regulations that are nothing more then a giveaway to the oil and gas industry," added Americans Against Fracking advisory board member and actor Mark Ruffalo. "These regulations take from us our heritage and hands it to an industry that doesn't need a hand out. Industrialization and parks don't belong together."
But the oil and gas industry doesn't see it that way. News outlets reported Friday that two industry groups said they would immediately file suit in federal court to block the regulations. The Independent Petroleum Association of America and Western Energy Alliance called the rules a "reaction to unsubstantiated concerns."
In fact, there is mounting evidence of myriad risks associated with fracking. The practice has been linked to increasing seismic activity, aquifer contamination, public health problems, and water scarcity issues.
"Fracking threatens our air, water and climate—and for what?" asked Environmental Action executive director Drew Hudson on Friday. "When the shale gas bubble pops, and it will, we'll have wasted years on a seriously dirty way to drill for a mostly-dirty fuel."
He added: "Given the substantial harms to the environment, climate, public health and community safety, without any long-term benefits, it's clear that fracking has NO place on public land."