How the Obama Administration Is Making Fracking on Public Lands Easier
Photo Credit: Wikimedia / BLM
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The Obama Administration has proposed new regulations for hydraulic fracturing on 756 million acres of public and tribal lands. The rules were written by the drilling industry and will be streamlined into effect by a new intergovernmental task force, established by the president, to promote fracking — a practice that has been linked to water poisoning, air pollution, methane emissions and, most recently, earthquakes. Environmentalists, many of whom are highly skeptical that fracking can even be regulated, hope to use a brief window for citizen participation in the rule approval process to leverage the growing anti-fracking movement.
The Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) — the government agency that manages the public lands in question — follows a dual and often conflicting mandate. Although it is charged with conserving lands for recreation and biological diversity, it must also ensure the commercial development of natural resources. The bureau tends to focus heavily on the latter part of its mission, and it has auctioned off public land for resource extraction, including oil and gas development, while following drilling regulations that were last updated in 1988, before fracking became a common practice.
“Under the old regulations, an operator would have to disclose non-routine techniques,” said BLM spokesperson Beverly Winston. “Now, hydraulic fracturing is routine, so nobody discloses it. It’s my understanding that probably 90 percent of wells on public lands use hydraulic fracturing.”
The newly proposed regulations will provide superficial environmental safeguards against industry excesses while shielding drillers and the government from the legal challenges that have begun cropping up. In April, for instance, a California judge ruledin a lawsuit brought by the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity that the BLM had failed to take a “hard look” at the impact of fracking on federal land in the state and halted the issuance of fracking leases for the Monterey shale region until an assessment of its environmental impact is completed. The proposed laws, however, will give the BLM legal cover to keep the frack leases flowing.
Former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who helped draft the laws, resigned from his post in January to take a job with WilmerHale. The corporate law firm’s website boasts “our lawyers strive to reduce liability and transform environmental compliance obligations into opportunities.”
Those wondering what opportunity looks like to drillers in regions originally set aside for conservation need only visit the Allegheny National Forest in Western Pennsylvania, a state that has opened its arms to drillers in recent years. Nearly 4,000 oil and gas wells were drilled in the Allegheny between 2005 and 2011.
“Where there were once remote areas of the forest there is now oil and gas infrastructure,” said Ryan Talbott of the Allegheny Defense Project. “If you are a recreationist going to go out and go hiking, camping, fishing, what might have been your favorite area before is now a sea of roads and pipelines and well sites.”
In 2009, under pressure from Allegheny Defense and other environmental groups, the Forest Service sought to monitor the drilling, implement environmental safeguards and provide a measure of planning to the spaghetti network of drill sites. But 93 percent of the mineral rights in the state are privately held and the Forest Service, in a case currently under review by the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, was sued by the gas companies who claim their property rights were violated.
Although not yet to the extent witnessed in Allegheny, fracking has commenced in other parts of the country where the BLM holds mineral rights, particularly out West. “We’re drilling all over the place,” President Obama told an audience in New Mexico last year, announcing plans to open millions more acres to the oil and gas industry. In the way of protection, however, Obama’s new rules follow the Pennsylvania model, barely scratching the surface when it comes to monitoring what occurs below.