Typically, hydraulic fracturing involves high-pressure pumping of a mixture of water, sand and toxic chemicals through a perforated pipe in a horizontal borehole to form microscopic fissures in the shale that release oil and gas. DIAGRAM COURTESY NORTH DAKOTA ASSOCIATION OF OIL & GAS PRODUCING COUNTIES
Environment | National | Politics

Native Sun News: Tribes facing deadline on fracking regulations

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

WASHINGTON, DC -- The national movement to control the increasing use of hydraulic fracturing in the petroleum industry faces a crucial deadline for public input July 10, when the U.S. Bureau of Land Management closes the comment period on a proposed rule mandating disclosure of chemical safety in the process.

The BLM says the rule would address concerns about “whether fracturing can allow or cause contamination of underground water sources, whether the chemicals used in fracturing should be disclosed to the public, and whether there is adequate management of well integrity and the ‘flow-back’ fluids that return to the surface during and after fracturing operations.”

The rule would apply to the subsurface mineral estate on the 700 million acres under public lands and 56 million acres under Indian lands managed by the BLM. It would require public disclosure of chemicals used in fracturing only after operations are completed. It seeks to improve verification that toxic fluids do not escape from wells during fracturing operations. The rule also would require oil and gas operators to put water management plans in place for handling the fracturing fluids that flow back to the surface from wells.

A relatively new and evolving technique, hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is becoming very common. Ninety percent of all oil and gas wells are utilizing fracking in 34 states. However, BLM regulations governing it are more than 30 years old.

Fracking entails vertical and horizontal drilling into bedrock; high-pressure injection of a sand, water and toxic chemical mix that causes fissures; extraction of the mix as well as the petroleum it releases from the rock; and separation of the components. Some representatives of petroleum-resource tribes oppose the rule, while several grassroots conservation groups want it strengthened.

“New jobs – especially year-round, high wage jobs available in the oil and gas industry – can and will have a dramatic effect on reducing unemployment and poverty on Indian reservations,” Don Young, chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs, said during an oversight hearing earlier this year.

“But if the BLM rule goes into effect, kiss these tribal jobs goodbye. Thanks to the Department of the Interior, while non-Indian landowners will prosper, the tribes will lose. This would be nothing less than another breach of the United States’ trust responsibility to Indians,” he said in reference to private lands being regulated differently from the proposed mandate.

Meanwhile, the Western Organization of Resource Councils, a network of grassroots groups in the northern Great Plains and Intermountain West, joined the international call for better disclosure and stronger regulation – or an outright banning – of the controversial drilling technique.

The organization exhorted citizens to “support BLM’s proposals for oil and gas companies to obtain permits before using hydraulic fracturing and to test wells to ensure integrity of the cement and casings that prevent leaks,” adding, “These are important steps that will safeguard public health and the environment.”

WORC also urged constituents to demand strengthening the proposed rules by requiring oil and gas companies to disclose the chemicals they plan to use before fracking is permitted.

“Nearby residents would then be able to learn what chemicals the companies intend to use, comment on the chemicals, and have BLM address those comments,” WORC said. “In addition, residents could test their water for contamination by those chemicals.”

WORC represents 7,000 members of 46 local chapters of organizations in North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, Montana, Idaho and Oregon. It became involved in energy policy when the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains were targeted as a “National Sacrifice Area” for energy production in the 1970s. Many members are directly impacted by oil and gas development.

The conservation organization said the BLM should bar the practice of using pits to store wastewater from drilling and fracking.

“Overflowing pits are a common source of contamination on oil and gas sites,” WORC said, calling for “closed tanks that don’t leak or overflow” as an alternative. WORC wants the BLM to establish “no-drill” zones around homes and water supplies. Independent research shows a higher risk of air pollution and water contamination for one-half mile around drill sites.

“A half-mile buffer zone around well bores would lower the risk of people getting sick and water supplies being contaminated,” WORC said in a written statement.

The organization wants BLM to require oil and gas companies to conduct and make available baseline water quality tests that will help document whether contamination occurs after drilling and fracking.

“It’s time for regulators to collect real data to determine how widespread contamination from oil and gas development is,” said WORC.

“The BLM also should require companies to document pathways for contamination, such as any existing faults, fractures and oil and gas wells, and avoid fracking in areas where there is a high risk of contamination,” it said.

However, T.J. Show, chairman of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, said that the rule adoption “will create additional burdens to an already burdensome process that will likely delay and possibly prevent beneficial development of Blackfeet oil resources.”

Show also charged, “BLM developed a rule that seriously impacts Indian country energy development without regard to the consultation process.”

Irene Cuch, chairwoman of the Ute Tribal Business Committee, testified in February oversight hearings that the BLM’s rulemaking process abridged tribes’ limited-sovereignty guarantees, because the proposal “incorrectly considers Indian lands to be public lands. Indian lands are for the exclusive use and benefit of Indian tribes,” she added. “Additional delays that will be caused by the BLM’s fracking rule will have an astronomical economic impact on the tribe,” she said.

Tex G. Hall, chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa & Arikara Nation’s Tribal Business Council, testified that “Since energy development began on the reservation, we have struggled with the federal bureaucracy for every single oil and gas permit.”

He added that “BLM’s proposed regulations may add so much delay, uncertainty and cost to the oil- and gas-permitting process that they may be forced to pull their drilling rigs off the reservation.”

Hall credits tribal energy development for creating more than 10,000 jobs.

Alleging lack of sufficient BLM consultation with tribes, he said, “BLM’s actions to date have given me and other tribes the impression that tribal input is not desired, or only minimally needed, even though there is strong evidence that the proposed regulations will cost the MHA Nation and the surrounding community a sizable number of jobs and money.”

James M. “Mike” Olguin, vice chairman of the Southern Ute Indian Tribal Council, concurred: “Added regulatory burdens to the development of tribal minerals discourage development on Indian lands and provide a direct incentive to operators to lease and drill on offsetting non-Indian lands because of the associated cost savings.”

Olguin said he was surprised that the tribes’ “concept of meaningful consultation has been shortchanged by the BLM,” and that “the steps being proposed by BLM to regulate hydraulic fracturing on our lands have been developed with little regard for practical considerations or the adverse financial impact that such regulations will have upon Indian tribes.”

Wilson Groen, president and CEO of the Navajo Nation Oil and Gas Co., told the subcommittee that “A federal rule relating to hydraulic fracturing will result in additional and extraordinary delays that could take the Interior Board of Land Appeals a year or more to decide.”

Groen also said he was “reliably informed that a second draft rule has been developed but has not been circulated to any tribes.”

The Department of the Interior said the BLM initiated formal tribal consultations on the rule in January 2012.

In a prepared statement, the Interior Department 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.”

(Contact Talli Nauman at talli.nauman@gmail.com)

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