A key House Democrat today criticized the Obama administration's proposal for regulating hydraulic fracturing on public land, saying it appears to be watering down the rule "under pressure from industry."
"The Interior Department seems to be making the rule weaker, not stronger," Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) said in his opening statement at a hearing on the proposal. "Weakening these requirements is troubling to me."
Holt is the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources' Energy and Mineral Resources Subcommittee. His criticism was included in the Democratic response to Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash).
Among other criticisms, he said the rule shouldn't use a website "run by industry" for disclosure of the ingredients of fracturing fluid. That is an apparent reference to FracFocus.org, which is strongly supported by the oil and gas industry and funded by industry trade groups but is run by a private nonprofit, the Ground Water Protection Council.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has already denied such accusations, telling reporters this week that industry pressure had nothing to with the significant changes to the rule that surfaced earlier this year (E&E Daily, May 8).
"They are taking the best science that's available," she said. "They are looking at historical practices, they are looking at modern technologies and how they are being used, and coming out with regulations that address all of those things and do it in the most scientifically justifiable way."
She also said she expects the new draft to be released soon.
Interior spokesman Blake Androff said, "In response to comments from stakeholders and the public, the BLM is making improvements to the draft proposal in order to maximize flexibility, facilitate coordination with state practices and ensure that operators on public lands implement best practices."
But President Obama's top aide on energy issues, Heather Zichal, promised natural gas industry representatives last year that she would fix many of the problems highlighted by industry (EnergyWire, June 22, 2012).
Zichal met more than 20 times in 2012 with industry groups and company executives lobbying on the proposed rule, according to an EnergyWire review of White House visitor records. Among them were the American Petroleum Institute, the Independent Petroleum Association of America, BP America Inc., Devon Energy Corp. and Exxon Mobil Corp. By contrast, Zichal and another top aide held four meetings with environmental groups on the proposal, commonly called the "BLM Fracking Rule" (EnergyWire, April 12).
The proposed fracking rule is intended to update rules for oil and gas drilling on federal land by requiring disclosure of the chemicals that companies inject underground, bolstering standards for ensuring that wells do not leak and requiring that wastewater is properly managed.
Interior has talked about such a rule for two years. In May 2012, the department released a draft for comment. But in January this year, it restarted the process, announcing it was drafting a new proposal.
The new language, floated to interest groups in the weeks that followed, incorporated several industry requests. Administration officials had decided to exempt acidizing, a process similar to fracturing that is used in California's Monterey Shale; make it easier to withhold fracturing fluid ingredients as trade secrets; and adopt the industry-backed FracFocus website for disclosure of chemicals (EnergyWire, Feb. 8).
Environmental groups were disappointed not to see in the proposal any of their suggestions, such as a ban on diesel fuel in fracturing fluid, increased protections for special areas and a prohibition on wastewater pits.
But Hastings ripped the proposal today as a "recipe for waste duplication and delay."
"At a time when the department is canceling lease sales," he said, "federal dollars and resources should not be spent duplicating state regulations, especially when states already have guidelines in place that are effective and successful."
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