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US releases new fracking rules on government lands

The US Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has released a draft of new rules requiring oil- and gas-development companies to disclose the chemicals they use in hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’.

“We’ve adopted a flexible approach to disclosure reporting, aimed at improving public awareness and oversight without introducing complicated new procedures or delays in developing oil and gas resources on public and tribal lands,” said BLM director Bob Abbey in a teleconference with the press on 4 May.

Since the original rules were revised in 1988, natural-gas development has seen a boom in production. But regulations have struggled to keep up with both production and growing concern about the potential environmental and public-health impact. Fracking entails drilling into the Earth to reach a layer called shale rock that’s rich in natural gas or oil, and then drilling horizontally through the shale. Companies then pump thousands of gallons of fluid — containing a mixture of ingredients — into the Earth at high pressure to break the shale rock and release natural gas into a pipeline. Under the BLM’s updated rules, companies must disclose the chemicals they use in fracking fluid, provide evidence that their underground well casings won’t leak chemicals into water-bearing geological sources, and present plans to dispose of waste water — a mix of fracking fluid and ground water containing radioactive elements — safely. The rules will affect only wells on federal and tribal lands.

The BLM also plans to make the chemical contents of fracking fluid available on a public website. Chemical ingredients used in fracking range from harmless coffee grounds to benzene, a carcinogen. Thus far, the list remains incomplete — although companies have voluntarily disclosed many on the website, some remain proprietary “trade secrets.” Several states — including Wyoming, Texas, Pennsylvania, Colorado and Arkansas — have already adopted disclosure requirements. Nevertheless, disclosure remains a point of controversy.

Although companies must disclose all ingredients to the BLM, they can argue that certain components are proprietary and protected by federal law, but they must substantiate the claim. “If we get to the situation where a company does want to claim that what they have is proprietary information, then they’re going to have to come forward and meet a very high bar that BLM will require them to show before it can be deemed to be proprietary,” said US Interior Secretary Kenneth Salazar at the teleconference.

But some feel that the regulations aren’t enough. “This is a critical first step, but so much more needs to be done,” said Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst at the Washington DC-based National Resources Defense Council, in a statement. Mall cites the fact that the rules mandate disclosure after, not before, drilling has occurred.

Jessica Ennis, a legislative representative with the San Francisco, California-based environmental law firm Earthjustice, agrees: “This information is essential so communities can test drinking water before fracking occurs and monitor the safety of water supplies in real time. If there’s a problem with their water, families deserve to know immediately — not after they’ve been drinking it for years.”

Salazar explained that “requiring the information before the fracking occurred would have caused” unnecessary delays.

For the next 60 days, individuals on both sides of the issue can comment on the BLM draft before a final version goes into effect.



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