The Interior Department is delaying planned rules that would impose new requirements on the controversial oil-and-gas production method called hydraulic fracturing.
Interior said Friday that it will float a new version of draft rules first issued last May and take new comments on the proposal that will govern “fracking” on public lands.
“In response to comments from stakeholders and the public, the [Bureau of Land Management] 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,” Interior spokesman Blake Androff said Friday.
The decision to issue another draft, which is expected to surface in the first quarter of this year, marks a significant delay in the plan. Interior initially floated the draft rules last May, and had earlier intended to finalize them by the end of 2012, although that timeline had already slipped.
“The agency intends to publish a new draft proposal in the first quarter of this year and will seek additional comments," Androff said. "Once comments on the updated draft have been collected and analyzed, the BLM expects to issue a final rule that will ensure that operators apply proven cost-effective safety and environmental protection processes when engaging in hydraulic fracturing on our public lands,” he said.
Interior did not provide a new timeline for finalizing the rules.
The American Petroleum Institute (API), a powerful petroleum industry lobbying group that has attacked the rules, praised the decision to pull back the earlier plan.
“API asked the administration to reconsider the rules, and we welcome this move as a positive first step,” said API President Jack Gerard in a statement. “However, the real test will be in the substance of the re-proposal. We hope the administration will recognize the strong oversight provided by existing state and federal regulations and take sufficient time to review the many thoughtful comments provided by the oil and natural gas industry and others.”
Fracking involves high-pressure injections of water, chemicals and sand into shale formations to open seams that enable hydrocarbons to flow.
Interior expects to send the revised draft regulation to the White House Office of Management and Budget for review next week. The revision is expected to maintain the three principal elements of the plan, although it’s not clear what the specific alterations will entail.
The plan requires energy companies to disclose chemicals used in the fracking process.
The draft rules also contained requirements on oil-and-gas well integrity to verify that fluids from the fracking process aren’t escaping into nearby water supplies, and require companies to have management plans for large volumes of so-called flowback water.
“Building on preliminary input from key stakeholders, the Bureau of Land Management proposed a commonsense and achievable rule in 2012 that leverages technologies already in use by companies to protect important water resources and improve transparency through disclosure of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing. Many companies are already implementing these best practices,” 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.”
The method is enabling an oil-and-gas production boom in a number of states, but is bringing fears of water pollution and other ecological harms alongside it. The proposed rules for federal lands have faced heavy criticism from industry groups and some Republicans, who say state oversight is sufficient.
While much of the U.S. production boom enabled by fracking has occurred on private and state lands, the energy industry fears that Obama administration officials will tighten regulation along a number of fronts beyond the federal lands rule.
Interior’s draft rule has also attracted some attacks from the left by critics who say it is too weak.