Blog: Proposed drilling rule all fracked up

Pam Linn

I admire Fareed Zakaria, but once again we seem to disagree. First it was on the Keystone XL pipeline (he was for, I was against). Now it’s hydraulic fracturing, the process by which gas and oil trapped deep underground in shale is released under pressure of water, sand and chemicals.

Zakaria said on his CNN show GPS Sunday that if the U.S. were to share its knowledge with China, it would help in controlling greenhouse gas emissions and thereby mitigate climate change. “Natural gas is cleaning carbon from the air around the world. Yet China has doubled its coal consumption with new plants built every week,” he said.

“China’s shale gas reserves are 50 percent larger than ours, but they have no way to frack safely. The U.S. needs to share its expertise. A cleaner China would have similar effects on the world.”

Doesn’t Zakaria know that our regulations on hydraulic fracturing are riddled with loopholes and the new version, announced by the Obama administration last week, apparently satisfies nobody?

A May 16 Associated Press news story by Matthew Daly stated the new rule would require companies drilling for oil and natural gas on federal and Indian lands to publicly acknowledge the chemicals pumped underground to release gas trapped deep in shale. But the word “required” is disputed.

The rule also sets standards for “proper” construction of wells and disposal of wastewater, according to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, a former petroleum engineer, who noted the rules haven’t been changed since 1982 and that it is time for an update. Environmentalists want to ban open wastewater pits.

The new rule would replace a draft proposed last year that drew complaints from industry that it could hinder booming natural gas production.

Meanwhile, environmental groups say the new proposal is weaker than the last draft and is a gift to the industry that lobbied against it.

Environmentalists also object to the new draft’s use of, an online database formed by the petroleum industry and intergovernmental groups in 2011 and used by Colorado and 10 other states to track fracking chemicals.

“These rules protect industry, not people,” said Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “They are riddled with gaping holes that endanger clean, safe drinking water supplies for millions of Americans nationwide.”

The American Petroleum Institute opposes any new federal rule, arguing that state-based tools, such as FracFocus, already ensure responsible drilling. Director Erik Milito questioned why the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) “is moving forward with these requirements in the first place.”

The proposed rule allows the BLM to defer to states and tribes that have standards in place meeting or exceeding those proposed by the federal rule. However, environmental groups say FracFocus is a voluntary site that allows companies to avoid disclosure by declaring certain chemicals trade secrets.

Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes defended the use of FracFocus, calling it “a potentially valuable tool to make information on fracking operations available to the public.” But how valuable can it be if key chemicals are considered trade secrets?

On his Sunday PBS show, Bill Moyers took on the subject, asking guests Sheila Krumholz and Danielle Brian if fracking wasn’t exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act.

They agreed, explaining that when a law is passed, the rules are often made by lobbyists. Companies shape policy, watering down regulations they see as threatening to their bottom line. Industry has endless influence on policy, they said. Krumholtz and Brian both blamed the “revolving door” that allows the free flow of former government employees and elected politicians to move to K Street lobbying firms. And the door swings both ways. Former industry representatives leave their jobs with money from their former employers to run for office or to take appointments to government agencies.

I appreciate the dichotomy between burning easily mined but dirty coal, or cleaner-burning natural gas that wastes scarce water and uses dangerous chemicals in processing. The proposed rule is subject to a 30-day comment period (a short length of time for discussion) before a final decision is to be made this summer. Try sending comments to the BLM, Department of the Interior or Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

When it comes to public health and safety, we really need government agencies to speak for all of us not just for powerful energy and chemical companies.

If they don’t, this may all end badly. Sorry, Fareed.