WyoFile Energy Report

Industry’s fracking problem

The Interior Department on Friday issued its proposed rule requiring the disclosure of fracking chemicals used in wells drilled on public and Indian lands, and it doesn’t appear that anyone is pleased with it.

Industry watchdogs say the rule doesn’t go far enough when it comes to minimizing the potential for fracking chemicals — and other fluids — to contaminate fresh groundwater resources.

Dustin Bleizeffer

Industry decried the move. The new rule “will slow western energy development with redundant regulations” and “further disadvantage public and tribal lands, and divert much needed jobs, revenue, and economic activity from western states and local communities,” industry trade group Western Energy Alliance (WEA) said in a press release.

Fracking — or hydraulic fracturing — is the widely used practice of pumping a mixture of water, sand and chemicals under pressure to force open fissures in oil- and gas-bearing rock formations to increase production. The continually improving technology is responsible for cranking open the spigot of America’s onshore oil and natural gas. “In 2011, U.S. crude oil production reached its highest level in 8 years, and U.S. natural gas production grew in 2011 as well – the largest year-over-year volumetric increase in history – easily eclipsing the previous all-time production record set in 1973,” the Interior said on Friday.

Fracking has gotten so much attention because of this, and because some of the drilling is taking place close to, and inside, communities. And the oil and gas wells being fracked almost always perforate drinking water aquifers — so any breach of the well-bore could lead to contamination. If not from a bucket of nasty fracking chemicals, then from the thousands of barrels of oil and gas that pass through the well bores. The potential for an actual fracture to leak chemicals from the production zone to the freshwater aquifer is only a very remote possibility in most areas, but still a site-by-site consideration. (see Pavillion, Wyoming)

The Interior’s new rule would do three basic things; require “public” disclosure of chemicals used in fracking on public and Indian lands, strengthen well-bore integrity standards, and set standards for the waste, or “flowback,” fluids from well stimulations. Probably the most meaningful measure in the rule would prohibit operators from dumping toxic flowback fluids into unlined pits — a standard already applied in several states, including Wyoming.

Authority to implement the new requirements lies with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which oversees oil and gas activities on public lands.

WEA’s Jon Haubert told WyoFile that his organization estimates the rule will cost “$176 million annually because of delays and lost production.”

Hooey.

There will be added costs. But operators are already working with their local BLM offices on a long list of permitting requirements. What’s a few more forms? Industry proudly claims it already meets stringent state-imposed standards of drilling and fracking activities. The Interior’s new rule doesn’t really set the bar any higher for what’s already considered best practices in the industry.

Fracking Graphic - ProPublica

This graphic explains the hydraulic fracking process. (Al Granberg/ProPublica — click to enlarge)

Several states, including Wyoming, have recently begun requiring partial disclosure of chemicals used in fracking — which is kind of a farce because of numerous exemptions, and because these toxic chemicals are being injected into toxic zones saturated with, yes, toxic oil and gas. What this debate is really about is holding oil and gas operators liable for when they spill or pollute.

By the way, any company or industry that doesn’t want to be held liable for its own spills and pollution really should pack it up and try to earn a buck somewhere else.

Oil wells spill and pollute sometimes. Most of the time, it’s no big deal; a spill is contained on the surface and cleaned up. If it’s not cleaned up, the operator might get hit with a fine. It’s no reason to outlaw oil and gas drilling, but it is reason to set standards, require disclosure and monitoring, and to hold companies liable for any messes they make.

It is correct to place extra emphasis on preventing spills into drinking water aquifers because there’s no more precious resource for any community than a plentiful supply of drinking water — especially in the West. Cleaning up a toxic plume in an aquifer is extremely expensive, and can take decades.

All the fuss about fracking centers on two things; the proliferation of oil and gas drilling in and around our drinking water aquifers, and the ability to figure out whether those activities taint the water. People who discover potentially toxic chemicals in their water want to know if they’re coming from oil and gas activities. But here’s the trick; if there’s no baseline testing done before drilling and fracking operations commence, it doesn’t matter what chemicals the company discloses because without knowing the pre-drilling conditions there’s no way of definitively proving pollutants came from drilling and fracking.

Don’t think the industry doesn’t understand that. Wyoming officials should be commended for a new effort to conduct such baseline testing of freshwater aquifers.

EPA, and several states, are taking practical steps to A) insist on best practices to avoid drinking water contamination in the first place, and B) disclose chemicals and monitor activities so that when there is a question of contamination an investigation can be performed to either exonerate or implicate the fracker, and assess the health risk.

In fact, in issuing the new fracking oversight rules the Interior estimates the U.S. — and presumably the industry — will avoid $12 million to $50 million annually in environmental remediation costs.

Don’t feel sorry for the oil and gas industry over this whole fracking debate. Industry itself is responsible for at least half of the hype and division over fracking. It was industry that insisted on a back-room deal with the Bush administration to exempt fracking from the Clean Drinking Water Act, naturally fostering suspicions that there was something to hide. It’s industry that continually says — with much bravado — there’s not a single recorded case of fracking polluting drinking water (if so it’s because we have such piss-poor baseline testing).

In fact, perhaps nobody did a better job of making the case for federal authority over fracking than Wyoming and its handling of the Pavillion groundwater pollution case. Wyoming regulators admitted they could do little more than shrug their shoulders in bewilderment for years as Pavillion area residents sought answers to groundwater quality questions. That’s not good enough, and that’s where other communities might be left without involvement from the federal government.

And certainly don’t be compelled by the minority of voices calling for the all-out abolishment of fracking — a wildly naive position akin to outlawing shovels because some are used to dig coal. Industry would have us believe that this is a large, politically influential mob of job-haters. It’s not. But playing the victim is a time-honored PR strategy to win sympathy. And the strategy works well when the opposing position is to ban, outright, a critical technology that doesn’t simply end with the burning of fossil fuels and the emission of greenhouse gases, but also in manufacturing products critical to our quality of life.

There’s a lot of truth in the notion that states can best manage the oversight of oil and gas drilling activities. But state officials are also prone to influence. According to the Denver Post, Gov. Matt Mead’s policy advisor Shawn Reese testified at a federal hearing on fracking and emphasized the fact that Wyoming derives $2 billion in annual revenue from the oil and gas industry, and the industry accounts for 20 percent of Wyoming’s employment.

When the industry speaks in Wyoming, officials here listen. And when the industry’s message is one of threats to send drill rigs packing — all this over disclosure of chemicals? — good sense can have a hard time prevailing.

Industry officials in Wyoming continually brag that the Cowboy State has some of the toughest oil and gas rules in the nation, and they have no qualms meeting them. It appears the Interior wants to apply that level of best practices nationally. The BLM should make certain that it doesn’t result in unnecessary bureaucratic delays. And for those operators who cannot afford to live up to the standards, well they shouldn’t be in the game.

Contact Dustin Bleizeffer at 307-577-6069 or dustin@wyofile.com.

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Published on May 4, 2012

  • Inky

    Several points:
    Fracking is ubiquitous — some 90 percent of all oil and gas operations involve fracking, sometimes just to lube the works and get fluids and gases to flow easier.
    When performed 100 percent accurately, fracking is safe.
    Fallible human beings are doing fracking.
    There’s no such thing as 100 percent safe.
    So is society willing to trade temporary financial benefits for permanent water contamination?

  • ReddMann

    I agree with most of what you wrote -but what gov. mead forgets is that the federal lands in the state of Wyoming belong to all us in this country and without Federal regulations and oversight there will continue to be mishaps such as Pavillion and the most recent blowout at Douglas. So what if it takes a little longer to get all the proper paperwork done properly to ensure that we are not endangering the health of the people of this great state,and also to make sure they (the industry) don’t ruin the majestic landscape and beauty of this state. Thank You Mr. Thomas S. Redding

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