With a proposed new set of rules, the federal Bureau of Land Management took a step toward better regulation of energy industries that use fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, to extract fossil fuels on public lands and Native American tribal lands. But the regulations are too lax to give much comfort to those who fear fracking is permanently poisoning land and water supplies, endangering wildlife and the public.
Each well uses between 2 million and 5 million gallons of fresh water that is permanently contaminated by toxic chemicals used in the fracking fluid. Pollutants have been discovered in Wyoming and Pennsylvania. Other states have reported surface, ground, and drinking water contamination and federal agencies are investigating possible links to fracking.
The Obama administration rightly resisted pressure from the industry to leave fracking regulations to the states, but it yielded to opposition to the tougher rules it proposed last year that would have better protected water supplies.
As the regulatory process moves along, the BLM should thoroughly consider whether these rules sufficiently take into account all the evidence that indicates fracking, a process of injecting chemical-laden water deep into underground rocks to loosen oil and gas deposits, permanently destroys the land, poisons the water and puts the public at risk.
The final BLM rules must not jeopardize precious groundwater supplies in order to give Americans cheaper energy and companies a better bottom line. The original regulations were revised to alleviate some industry criticisms. The final rules should show the same consideration to the public.
Under the proposed regulations, the BLM would require wider disclosure of chemicals used in drilling but would allow the companies to argue for trade-secret protection for certain chemical combinations. The rules would let companies disclose their lists of chemicals to FracFocus, an Oklahoma-based Web site with ties to the industry. A Harvard Law School study concluded that FracFocus "does not serve the interests of the public." The regulations would require that companies have a management plan for water that flows back to the surface and can guarantee that toxic fluids will not leak from the drilling hole into surrounding groundwater. But they do not require that each well be tested separately.
Under the new rules, annual costs to drillers would average no more than $5,100 a well. But the costs to public health and America's supply of clean water should be the BLM's primary concern.