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Federal Government is Longtime Supporter of Fracking
Friday August 23 marked the end of the public comment period for the Department of Interior’s draft “fracking rule” (see PDF) on public lands. The rule, originally proposed by Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in May 2013, has three main components: it would require drillers to disclose the chemicals used in fracking on public lands; it would setup standards for well integrity to safeguard against groundwater contamination; and it would require drillers to have a plan in place to deal with flow back.
The oil and gas industry have put up stiff resistance with cries that regulation will kill off any hopes of “energy independence.” House Republicans oppose the measure, and as Greenwire reported, Rep. Bill Flores (R-TX) put forth legislation that would block BLM’s fracking rule. Flores, the former CEO of Phoenix Exploration, an oil and gas company, argued at a subcommittee hearing in July, “[t]he 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.” Congressman Flores seemed to have not realized (or more likely willfully ignored) that BLM’s rule applies to federal lands, not state lands.
Despite vociferous rhetoric from Republicans in Congress and the oil and gas industry to the contrary, the federal government has long-been in bed with the industry.
In 2005 President George W. Bush signed the Energy Policy Act into law (then Senator Obama supported the bill) with a provision that specifically exempted fracking activities from certain provisions in the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Clean Air Act. The provision is known as the “Halliburton loophole” as it was included at the request of then Vice President Dick Cheney. The loophole has successfully removed the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) authority to regulate fracking.
Some members of Congress have since fought to close the loophole, without success. Rep. Diane DeGette (D-CO) sponsored The Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act in 2009 (see PDF) that would have repealed the Halliburton loophole, but it died in committee.
When Barack Obama took office in January 2009, there was new hope that the oil and gas industry would no longer receive such favorable treatment. In 2009 the EPA began sampling wells in Pavillion, WY in response to complaints from local residents near drilling sites that their well water appeared to be dark and dirty, and smelled of petroleum. EPA officials ran tests in areas fracked by Encana Oil & Gas in what would become a closely watched study because of its potential impact on future regulation of the industry.
In 2011 the EPA issued a draft report with results from Wyoming that discovered the presence of synthetic chemicals used in the fracking process. It also found benzene in quantities above what is considered safe, as well as high levels of methane. The report was the first significant and official link between fracking and groundwater contamination. The industry disputed the findings, arguing that the report was flawed, but the study was seemingly a watershed moment in the unfolding fracking narrative.
Yet, on June 20, 2013, EPA dropped its investigation and handed it over to the state of Wyoming.
The decision came only five days before President Obama laid out his plan to fight climate change in a major speech at Georgetown University, which relied heavily on natural gas. Environmental groups are outraged over what they see as a calculated political move by the White House, directing the EPA to stop work on the study.
Because natural gas theoretically emits only half of the greenhouse gases compared to coal, President Obama made increased natural gas production a central pillar of his plan, stating, “Sometimes there are disputes about natural gas, but let me say this: We should strengthen our position as the top natural gas producer because, in the medium term at least, it not only can provide safe, cheap power, but it can also help reduce our carbon emissions.”
By favoring natural gas, the President seemed to be providing cover for other parts of his climate plan, which may over time force the shutdown of many of the nation’s existing coal plants. He is using natural gas to kill off coal.
This is why, some think, the EPA was pressured into backing off its fracking study, handing over responsibility to the state of Wyoming. The study will be funded by Encana, the company that owns the wells in the area.
Industry supporters cheered, as did Wyoming’s congressional delegation. In a press release, Senator John Barrasso (R) said, “EPA’s decision to not rely on premature conclusions in its 2011 draft report is a positive and wise step.” Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis (R) added, “Today they finally recognized that the very best place for their report on fracking in Pavillion is in the dust bin of history.”
The fact that the administration seems to be fully embracing natural gas does not bode well for rigorous regulatory oversight. And for the first time, industry is looking to lease Eastern national forests. While the oil and gas industry may oppose BLM’s proposed fracking rule for fear of burdensome regulation, if history is any guide, they have little reason to worry.
Nick Cunningham is a freelance writer based in Washington DC. He covers energy and environmental issues. You can read more of his writing at http://naturalcapital1.blogspot.com/, or follow him on twitter at @nickcunningham1.