Concern Grows Over Fracking Public Lands

On May 16, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) announced new rules for fracking – or hydraulic fracturing – on public lands that environmental groups say do not go far enough to protect public health. There are more than 1 million fracked wells across the U.S. according to the American Petroleum Insistute, and some 80% of natural gas wells drilled in the next decade will rely on this technique, which involves pumping a mixture of chemicals and water deep in shale rock formations under high pressure, causing cracks in the rock which allow oil and natural gas to flow out. Those chemicals – and the potential harm they pose to drinking water and the surrounding environment – are of particular concern to environmental organizations.

The new proposed rules – which would update 30-year-old BLM rules for fracking – address the secrecy on the part of drill operators regarding the chemicals used in fracking fluids and seek comment on how these “flowback” fracking fluids should be stored – whether in tanks or lined pits. Regarding trade secrets, “The revised proposed rule allows operators to submit to the BLM an affidavit asserting exemption from disclosure of certain information having to do with the hydraulic fracturing fluid,” but “The rule also gives the BLM the ability to demand the specific chemical details of any materials being proposed for trade secret exemption.”

Drinking water supplies that will be impacted by fracking operations on public lands include the municipal water supplies of all of Washington, D.C., Denver, Colorado and parts of Monterey, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties in California. A survey by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) found that 38.5 million acres – an area bigger than Florida – has been leased for federal oil and gas reserves. These acres include forests, Indian land and public wildlands and give the government access to both municipal and private drinking water supplies (landowners own their land, but not the mineral rights below the surface). Altogether, the BLM oversees about 700 million acres of federal mineral estate and 56 million acres of Indian mineral estate.

“These rules protect industry, not people,” said NRDC President Francis Beinecke in a statement. “They are riddled with gaping holes that endanger clean, safe drinking water supplies for millions of Americans nationwide. They also put the fate of millions of acres of America’s last remaining wild places in jeopardy. With fracking already moving full steam ahead on federal lands, we need protective ground rules for communities and the environment. Instead, this draft is a blueprint for business-as-usual industrialization of our landscapes.”

The Sierra Club, Earthjustice and other environmental organizations have expressed similar dismay at the weak regulations that would govern fracking – and fracking fluids – on such a large swath of public land. As Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said in a statement: “Although no amount of regulation will make fracking acceptable, the proposed BLM rules fail even to take obvious steps to make it safer. This proposal does not require drillers to disclose all chemicals being used for fracking and continues to allow trade-secret exemptions for the oil and gas industry. There is no requirement for baseline water testing and no setback requirements to govern how close to homes and schools drilling can happen. The new rules also continue to allow the use of toxic diesel fuel for fracking, as well as open pits for storing wastewater – two practices that we know to be environmentally hazardous.”

Guidelines for submitting comments to the proposed rule changes can be found on the BLM site.