Environment | National

Native Sun News: DOI seeks to regulate fracking with new rule

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman, Native Sun News Health and Environment Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

WASHINGTON, D.C. –– Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced a proposed rule on May 4 mandating businesses to disclose the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing operations on federal and Indian lands.

The rule would provide protections for proprietary information, requiring public disclosure of chemicals only after operations are completed. Until now, the government has not compelled operators to disclose the substances involved in hydraulic fracturing on public and Indian lands, although approximately 90 percent of the wells drilled there employ the method.

In releasing the draft, Salazar said the rule is “to make sure that fracturing operations conducted on public and Indian lands follow common-sense industry best practices.” The State Department issued a bulletin noting that the measure supports U.S. President Barack Obama’s “all-of-the-above” energy strategy “and the Administration’s goal of continuing to expand responsible oil and gas production.”

Hydraulic fracturing, commonly called “fracking”, is a way to increase the oil and gas available by coaxing it out of what are known as “unconventional” reservoirs, where the petroleum is so tightly locked in the underground rock that it cannot be accessed by conventional drilling and pumping, according to North Dakota geologist Kathie Neset.

To accomplish hydraulic fracturing, crews working on oil and gas rigs drill bore holes, lay pipe casings, perforate them, and force fresh water, mixed with ceramic and sand, as well as acids and other chemicals, through the pipes and out the perforation holes. This causes pressure to crack the rock and release the hydrocarbons into the ‘fracking’ fluid channels as the brine is removed.

Neset, who works for numerous oil and gas companies, noted the “controversy about water and fracking,” saying “I welcome the scrutiny” of the public. “We would be wrong to go ahead without making sure we know how it’s done and that it is done responsibly,” she told Black Hills Bakken Conference attendees in Spearfish, South Dakota, on May 2.

She said the same technology used worldwide is applied to the Bakken formation, which fosters the oil and gas boom on Ft. Berthold Reservation, Ft. Peck Reservation, North Dakota and Montana public lands.

Advances in hydraulic fracturing methods have allowed development of previously unprofitable deposits, she said. As a result, U.S. oil and natural gas production has increased annually since 2008.

Last year, in 2011, U.S. crude oil production reached its highest level in eight years, and domestic natural gas production experienced the largest year-over-year volumetric increase in history – eclipsing the previous all-time record set in 1973, according to the State Department.

By volume, the bulk of fracking fluid is water, followed by the ceramic and sand (called “propants”, because they prop the cracks open when brine is retired), and a small percentage of chemicals, Neset explained.

Typically present in the chemical cocktail are hydrochloric or muriatic acid (also used in swimming pools, etching and cleaning), biocides (also used in the health care industry), sodium chloride (table salt), petroleum products, friction reducers, and scale inhibitors, such as those found in antifreeze, she said.

The proposed rule would apply to BLM-managed mineral estate, including 700 million subsurface acres of federal estate and 56 million subsurface acres of Indian mineral estate.

Once it is published in the Federal Register, a 60-day comment period will begin. Interior said it encourages input from “the public, governments, industry and other stakeholders.” Under the department’s unique relationship with Indian tribes, the federal Bureau of Land Management began formal tribal consultations on the rule in January 2012.

Interior said the consultations included “outreach, communication and substantive discussions with tribal governments about the proposed rule’s ongoing development, in the spirit of trust, respect and shared responsibility in providing tribal governments an expanded role in informing federal policy that impacts Indian lands. Consultation with tribal leaders remains ongoing and will continue throughout the rulemaking process.”

BLM regulations governing hydraulic fracturing on public lands are more than 30 years old and were not written to address modern hydraulic fracturing activities.

“The proposed rule will move our nation forward as we ensure responsible development while protecting public land resources,” said BLM Director Bob Abbey. His agency “recognizes the importance of all domestic energy sources to the welfare and security of this nation,” he added.

“The rule seeks to maximize flexibility, minimize duplication and complement ongoing efforts in some states to regulate fracturing activities by providing a consistent standard across all federal and Indian lands and making reported information easily accessible to the public,” Interior said.

The BLM is working with the Ground Water Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Commission to integrate the disclosure obligation with the program known as FracFocus.

Interior noted that the draft rule contains two additional, commonsense measures to ensure development continues safely:
• Improving assurances on well-bore integrity to verify that fluids used in wells during fracturing operations are not escaping; and
• Confirming that oil and gas operators have a water management plan in place for handling fracturing fluids that flow back to the surface.

“The measures contained in the draft are consistent with the goals Salazar first outlined in November 2010 during a forum on hydraulic fracturing on public lands to examine best practices to ensure that natural gas on federal and Indian lands is developed in a safe and environmentally responsible manner,” Interior said.

During the first three years of the Obama Administration combined, federal oil production increased by 13 percent and total natural gas production from onshore public lands has increased by six percent, compared with totals from 2006-2008.

“As the President has made clear, this administration’s energy strategy is an all-out effort to boost American production of every available source of energy,” said Secretary Salazar. “As we continue to offer millions of acres of America’s public lands for oil and gas development, it is critical that the public have full confidence that the right safety and environmental protections are in place.”

Overall, oil imports have been falling since 2005, and oil import dependence declined from 57 percent in 2008 to 45 percent in 2011 – the lowest level since 1995.

(Talli Nauman is the Health & Environment Editor at the Native Sun News. Contact her at talli.nauman@gmail.com)

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