Department of Interior’s Proposed Fracking Guidelines Disappoint

by Sofia Plagakis, 5/4/2012

For months, we've been waiting for the U.S. Department of the Interior to issue standards for natural gas drilling and extraction on federal land and tribal land. The proposed rule was finally released on May 4 and it is very disappointing. The rule sets standards for the controversial drilling process known as fracking (hydraulic fracturing) and the hope was that the federal government would create a "best practices" standard to ensure safe drilling practices and ongoing monitoring to protect the purity of the water and land around the well sites. This did not happen.

To start on a positive note, the rule does propose to improve standards for gas well construction and to establish requirements for managing wastewater disposal. Earthquakes in Ohio, Arkansas, and Oklahoma have been linked to the wastewater disposal process that accompanies fracking, so both these developments are important advances.

However, the chemical disclosure requirements are discouraging. Oil and natural gas companies should be required to disclose the chemicals that will be used in wells before a well is drilled. Instead, companies don't have to disclose the ingredients they intend to pump into the ground until 30 days after drilling is completed. (An earlier draft of the rule, leaked in February, required companies to disclose the chemicals used in fracking fluid before beginning operations. It prompted vigorous complaints from the gas industry which apparently achieved their goal.)

Early chemical disclosure is critical to protecting communities and the environment. Public health officials can conduct baseline studies of water and air quality, but they need to know the chemicals they are testing for to effectively monitor and guard against toxics seeping into ground water and/or threatening public health. Pre-drilling disclosure allows communities and public inspectors to hold companies accountable if contamination occurs. And, exposure to chemicals can occur through accidents that occur during the drilling process, putting well workers and the public health professionals who treat them at risk if they don't know the chemicals to which they have been exposed.

The rule also gives drilling companies a tanker-sized loophole in these limited disclosure requirements by allowing companies to decide what chemical information they want to label "a trade secret." The trade secret label allows the companies to withhold the chemical information from the public. Commercial claims should not supersede the release of chemical information or scientific evidence about public health risks.

In a conference call to tout the proposed rule, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said that "it is critical that the public has full confidence that effective safety and environmental protections are in place." This proposed rule fails that test.

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