oil and gas

Republicans launch legislative assault on BLM fracking rules

House Republicans this morning began a pre-emptive legislative strike to block new draft rules from the Bureau of Land Management governing the controversial but widespread technique of hydraulic fracturing for oil and natural gas.

The Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources this morning took up H.R. 2728, by Rep. Bill Flores (R-Texas), which would preclude BLM from enforcing any rules or guidance for hydraulic fracturing in states that have any regulations or guidance for that activity.

Flores, who is the former CEO of Phoenix Exploration Co., a Houston-based oil and gas exploration firm, said blocking the BLM draft rule is critical to safeguarding the nation's manufacturing renaissance and reducing greenhouse gas emissions through the increased production of natural gas.

"The bill before us today is not a question of regulating or not regulating hydraulic fracturing," he said. "The bill before us today is about empowering local self-government in placing a check on the growth of an out-of-control, one-size-fits-all federal government."

While the bill was backed by three state oil and gas regulators today, Democrats and one conservationist witness argued the bill itself is a one-size-fits-all response that could block any BLM regulations of the oil and gas drilling process on public lands.


"We're talking here about federal government setting public health and safety standards on federal lands that are owned and governed by federal law for the benefit and protection of all Americans," said Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.). "As much as many of the witnesses' testimony seemed to forget, these are not state lands."

At issue is a set of draft rules BLM unveiled in May to require disclosure of the chemicals injected underground during hydraulic fracturing and to set tougher standards for demonstrating well-bore integrity and management of so-called flowback water.

The rules, which would address standards last updated in the 1980s, would add about $12 million to $20 million in industry costs per year, amounting to less than 1 percent of the cost to drill a well, BLM estimated. But an industry-funded study this week found the rules would cost more than 15 times as much (Greenwire, July 22).

Republican opposition to the rule is grounded in both the belief that states are the proper regulators of drilling within their borders and the testimony of multiple federal officials that hydraulic fracturing has yet to cause groundwater contamination.

Today, they pointed also to the preliminary result of an Energy Department study released this week that suggested fracking is not contaminating drinking water aquifers in western Pennsylvania (EnergyWire, July 22).

Cathy Foerster, chairwoman and engineering commissioner for Alaska's Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said states have ample resources to establish standards for hydraulic fracturing from organizations including the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC) and the State Review of Oil and Natural Gas Environmental Regulations (STRONGER).

She disputed a statement earlier this month from Interior Secretary Sally Jewell that a federal regulatory backstop is needed for states whose fracking regulations fall short.

"To imply that state regulators have nowhere to go for help when they encounter hydraulic fracturing or any other new operation or technology, also not true," Foerster said.

But Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.), serving as ranking member at the hearing, challenged Foerster on whether guidance from IOGCC and STRONGER is being enforced.

"In my humble opinion, sharing information and promotion of best management practices, while important, is not a valid substitute for inspection, enforcement and required construction standards," he said.

Lois Epstein, an engineer from Alaska who represented the Wilderness Society, said vague language in the bill could have unintended consequences.

"Section 2(a) is sufficiently vague, in fact, that BLM might be unable to enforce any federal regulation with any relationship to oil, gas or geothermal energy simply because states have guidances or regulations regarding hydraulic fracturing," Epstein said.

She added that surface activities associated with hydraulic fracturing operations have caused water contamination, "so statements focusing only on the fracking process itself being benign are misleading."

Flores' bill should have no trouble passing the House, but its passage in the Democratic-controlled Senate is doubtful.

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