Oil and gas companies will soon have to start telling U.S. EPA before they "frack" wells, a development that has caught many in the industry off-guard and rekindled some drillers' most potent fears about federal intrusion.
The notification requirement is a little-known aspect of air rules for hydraulic fracturing finalized earlier this year by the agency (Greenwire, April 20). The hard-fought and better-known aspects of the rule don't kick in until January 2015. But the email notice requirement starts Monday.
The confusion has upset some in the drilling industry, where EPA is regarded with great suspicion.
"I've heard people say it's the federal government trying to get their hooks into hydraulic fracturing any way they can," said Gifford Briggs, vice president of the Louisiana Oil & Gas Association. "This shows how important November 6 is."
Nov. 6 is the date of the presidential election. The industry tilts heavily Republican.
EPA's Region 6, which includes Texas and bordering states, sent a letter dated Sept. 28, informing recipients of the email address to use to send the notification.
But Briggs said yesterday that his group didn't learn of the notification requirement until Friday, as the long Columbus Day weekend was about to begin. Now, the group says it has a shortened work week during which it must figure out the details of the new requirement.
"Apparently, they went through rulemaking, and it was something everybody missed," Briggs said.
After EnergyWire inquired about the notification requirement, an EPA spokeswoman sent a fact sheet about the air rules that includes details about the notification requirement.
But the fact sheet does not include the date the notification requirement goes into effect. It does, though, include the 2015 implementation date for other provisions of the rules.
It states that drillers should include geographic coordinates of the well being fracked. Briggs noted that drillers do not need to send other information, such as the depth of the well, or the contractor that did the fracking.
The letter sent from Region 6 says that eventually, drillers will be able to notify state agencies rather than EPA in advance of fracking, tracking with many EPA programs in which the agency delegates its authority to the states. But until EPA grants that authority, drillers will have to deal with the federal government.
Briggs said his members and state officials are trying to figure out whether the authority can be granted to state oil and gas officials, or the state's environmental agency.
"If the goal here was to put in place a workable system that gives operators a genuine opportunity to fully comply with what are obviously some pretty complicated rules, this wouldn't be the process you'd choose," said Chris Tucker of Energy in Depth, a public relations campaign of industry groups, primarily the Independent Petroleum Association of America.
Industry's dislike of EPA was reflected in its lobbying efforts to exempt hydraulic fracturing from the permitting requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act, which is run by EPA. That effort bore fruit in the 2005 energy bill. Industry critics now refer to the exemption as the "Halliburton loophole."
While EPA regulates some aspects of drilling and can step in under SDWA when a driller has polluted drinking water, industry has managed to keep the agency from having any involvement in the permitting of oil and gas wells. Such permitting is usually done by state agencies that are charged with regulating oil and gas in addition to promoting drilling.
"This is as close as they've ever gotten to regulating hydraulic fracturing," Briggs said. "Why does EPA need to be involved when it's regulated by the state already?"
Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, is a segment of the drilling process in which crews blast millions of gallons of chemical-laced water deep underground at high pressure to break apart rock formations and release gas. Some, particularly drilling critics, use the term "fracking" for all aspects of the drilling process.
The air rules, formally known as New Source Performance Standards for volatile organic compounds (VOCs), were finalized April 17. They are best known for requiring "green completions," in which drillers capture the methane and VOCs normally emitted during fracturing.
EPA had also originally proposed requiring notification of fracturing 30 days in advance, but that was dropped in favor of the electronic, two-day notification.
The most vigorous debates about the rules involved not the notification requirement but the "green completions" rules, which EPA delayed by more than two years to 2015. EPA critics also have accused the agency of using VOC rules as a way to regulate methane emissions.