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New U.S. Fracking Rules Earn Disdain from Both Sides—and a Lawsuit

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About 36 million acres of public land are under lease for oil and gas development, according to the Department of Interior, which released new rules Friday for fracking on those lands. Shown here: Drilling in Utah. (Photograph by WildEarth Guardians/Flickr)

No sooner had the Interior Department released new fracking rules for public lands on Friday than industry groups announced a lawsuit to halt what they called “a reaction to unsubstantiated concerns.”

The new regulations pertain to hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas on about 756 million acres of federal and Indian land. They require companies to publicly disclose chemicals used during fracking, and they include stricter standards for well construction and wastewater storage. (See related: “Fracking Next to a Cemetery? 10 Unlikely Sites Targeted for Drilling.”)

In issuing the rule, Interior’s Bureau of Land Management aimed to update regulations that are more than 30 years old. A lot has changed, of course, about oil and gas development in those three decades—the combination of hydraulic fracturing with horizontal drilling has opened up vast new stores of oil and gas.

“These newer wells can, among other complexities, be significantly deeper and cover a larger horizontal area than the operations of the past,” the BLM says, requiring additional oversight. The rule notes that 36 million acres of federal land in 33 states have been leased for oil and gas development.

The rule drew scorn from the American Petroleum Institute, which called it “duplicative” and “unnecessary,” and from the Western Energy Alliance, which joined the Independent Petroleum Association of America in filing a suit to stop the regulation in federal district court in Wyoming.

Kathleen Sgamma of the Western Energy Alliance said her group anticipated filing the lawsuit based on draft language from BLM. “There has been no justification for this rule,” she says. “It’s redundant with state regulatory authority.”

But environmental groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Center for Biological Diversity also took a dim view of the BLM’s decisions. The CBD calls them “weak,” noting that they do not address methane leaks at drilling sites, and that they allow companies to wait until after the drilling is done to disclose chemicals used.

A spokesperson at Interior says that regulation pertaining to methane is a separate process, and that those rules are due “sometime this year.” (See related: “Oil and Gas Industry Faces Its Methane Problem.”)

Amy Mall, senior fracking policy analyst at NRDC, says the fact that companies are allowed to withhold disclosures of chemicals considered trade secrets is “a huge concern.” Companies can get exemptions from revealing that a chemical was used during fracking if they submit an affidavit with specific information about why the material needs to be kept secret, according to the rule.

On its side, the industry is arguing for even more protection of what it deems trade secrets. Mark Barron, counsel to WEA and IPAA on the lawsuit, says that the geological details the government wants to be filed publicly for well sites should be protected.

BLM is “asking for information that implicates companies’ competitive positions, that doesn’t relate to public safety,” Barron says.

The agency does allow for state or tribal regulations to trump its own if the existing ones “meet or exceed the objectives of this rule.”

Mall says that’s too vague, leaving it unclear how exactly standards would be implemented in different states: “The devil is in the details.”

The fracking rules take effect in 90 days. It isn’t yet clear when there might be a decision on the Wyoming lawsuit; Barron said he wouldn’t be surprised if it was 30 days or 18 months.