How the BLM can modernize rules for hydraulic fracturing

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Briana Mordick, Oil & Gas Science Fellow, Washington, D.C.

The technology used to get oil and gas out of the ground has evolved extremely rapidly but regulation has unfortunately not kept pace. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has recognized this, stating that the Bureau of Land Management’s “current regulations specific to hydraulic fracturing – or stimulation operations – are in many ways outdated; they were written in 1982; and they reflect neither the significant technological advances in hydraulic fracturing nor the tremendous growth in its use that has occurred in the last 30 years.”

Officials from the Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) have announced that regulations pertaining to the extraction of oil and gas on public lands will be updated in the near future and will focus on three topics:

  1. Disclosure of chemicals used in stimulation operations, such as hydraulic fracturing;
  2. Management of flowback, which is the term used to describe hydraulic fracturing fluids that return to the surface after a hydraulic fracturing operation is complete, and;
  3. Mechanical integrity of wells that are hydraulically fractured. Mechanical integrity means that the well is constructed and maintained properly to prevent pollution.

We look forward to seeing BLM’s proposed rules. If they’re strong, these rules have the potential to set the national standard for safer oil and gas operations everywhere in the U.S. Today, NRDC submitted detailed recommendations for what we think those rules should cover in order to do so, including:

  • Pre- and post-fracture public disclosure of all hydraulic fracturing chemicals. This ensures that people who live near oil and gas development have the information they need to get their drinking water tested before and after hydraulic fracturing.
  • Banning the use of diesel and related products in hydraulic fracturing fluids. Diesel naturally contains what are known as BTEX compounds: benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene, all of which have long-term negative health effects and may increase the risk of cancer. Non-toxic alternatives that perform the same function as diesel are available, so there’s no reason to continue to use this dangerous chemical.
  • Prohibiting the use of pits to store or dispose of flowback. Flowback fluid – a waste product of oil and gas development – can contain hydraulic fracturing chemicals, salts, heavy metals, volatile organic compounds, hydrocarbons, and naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM). The use of open pits for storage of this waste product, currently a common practice, increases the chances of spills or leaks that can contaminate groundwater and also allows methane and other air pollutants that come up with the fluid to be released into the atmosphere. Consequently, flowback should be collected in closed tanks.
  • Water use and waste water management plans. Drilling and hydraulic fracturing a single well requires the use of millions of gallons of water – often fresh water. The oil and gas industry also generates trillions of gallons of waste water each year. Comprehensive water use and waste water management plans can help operators use fresh water resources more efficiently, increase recycling, and ensure that waste water – which can contain harmful contaminants –  is disposed of properly, so those contaminants don’t end up in drinking water supplies, or our rivers, lakes and streams.
  • Mechanical integrity monitoring and correction plans. Mechanical integrity can degrade over time, which can put groundwater at risk. Operators should develop and implement plans to monitor wells for mechanical integrity, corrosion, and erosion over time and make repairs as necessary.
  • Update well construction requirements. Proper well design and construction is crucial to protecting groundwater and is the first step to ensuring long-term mechanical integrity. BLM’s current well construction requirements do not reflect the environmental protection risks posed by horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.
  • Include operating and monitoring requirements specific to hydraulic fracturing. During hydraulic fracturing, fluids are injected into the well at high pressure. In order to ensure that the well does not become compromised and that hydraulic fracturing fluids do not pose a risk to drinking water, various parameters should be measured before, during, and after stimulation. This provides operators with the information to detect problems as they occur and shut down operations if necessary.

We are fully supportive of BLM’s decision to update their rules on the three topics they have outlined. However, it’s important to keep in mind that these are only three of dozens of steps in the oil and gas extraction process that must be properly regulated and enforced to ensure protection of the environment and public health.  We urge BLM to use this opportunity to set a national model by properly addressing these topics as soon as possible.

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