WASHINGTON — The Obama administration is taking flak for the first federal regulations on hydraulic fracturing, a controversial technique for drilling for natural gas — and it hasn’t even formally announced them yet.

“These new regulations will add significant barriers and delays to natural gas production and job creation on federal lands,” said Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash, at a hearing in February.

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is a process by which companies extract natural gas by applying a highly pressurized fluid to shale deposits thousands of feet underground.

President Barack Obama alluded to the new regulations in his State of the Union address in January. “I’m requiring all companies that drill for gas on public lands to disclose the chemicals they use,” he said.

The draft regulations, disclosed by the Houston Chronicle in February and later verified by the Interior Department, are expected to be formally released this month and would require companies fracking on public land to disclose fracking fluid chemicals as well as how they dispose of  leftover fluid and to follow drilling standards specifically aimed at fracking.

Already the regulations have become another flashpoint between industrialists and environmentalists, who continue to debate the safety of fracking and the federal government’s role in regulating it.


The Fracking ‘Hysteria’

New technology has made fracking easier to do, and it, along with horizontal drilling, led to a boom in the shale gas industry last decade.

As the natural gas industry has soared, so has the controversy over fracking. Now, it’s one of the foremost controversies in environmental policy, and one that has pulled in environmentalists, industrialists, scientists and politicians.

Both Democrats and Republicans say natural gas is an important part of the country’s energy future with implications for the country’s economy and energy independence.

Obama has frequently stressed the importance of natural gas development.

“We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly one hundred years, and my administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy,” Obama said in the State of the Union address in January. “The development of natural gas will create jobs and power trucks and factories that are cleaner and cheaper.”

The shale gas industry supported more than 600,000 jobs in 2010, according to economic analysts contracted by America’s Natural Gas Alliance, a trade group. They predicted that the industry will account for at least 1.6 million jobs by 2035.

However, concerns about fracking’s safety have grown as its use has increased.

When some people living around fracking wells began to complain of noxious fumes and strange tastes in their water, environmentalists, who once praised natural gas as a clean alternative to coal and oil, began to ask questions.

Now, the issue has become an old-fashioned environmental debate, with environmentalists stressing fracking’s environmental risks and demanding that the federal government intervene while industrialists stress jobs and say the federal government should not meddle in affairs best left to the states. Each side accuses the other of exaggeration and distortion.

The regulations, as well as millions of dollars for studies into the safety of fracking that the administration has asked for in its 2013 budget proposal, are intended to placate this “hysteria,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said.

The regulations are needed to “make sure we fully understand all of the dimensions of hydraulic fracturing,” he said. “We need to make sure that the science supports the confidence that the American people are entitled to.”


Water, the “Achilles’ heel”

Although environmentalists are also concerned with air pollution from fracking and even whether it causes earthquakes, almost all debate about fracking has revolved around its potential risk to drinking water, and it’s that issue that the draft regulations aim to address.

To extract gas from shale, it must be broken t apart, or fractured. Fracking companies do this by applying a highly pressurized fluid that seeps into perforations in the shale and then breaks it apart.

The fluid is mostly water. Companies mix in a little sand, which keeps the shale from sliding back together after fracturing. Finally, they add a pinch of chemicals, many of which are toxic.

The federal Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 allowed the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate all drilling to protect groundwater sources of drinking water — but Congress excluded fracking wells from the act in 2005.

Disclosure rules, state by state

Nine states require natural gas companies to disclose information about their fracking fluid.

State Chemical
Arkansas Yes No
Colorado Yes Yes
Louisiana Yes Yes
Michigan Yes No
Montana Yes No
Ohio Yes No
Pennsylvania Yes Yes
Texas Yes Yes
Wyoming Yes No

Source: Inside Climate News

“Another layer of regulations at the federal level would not result in cleaner water but only in adding significant cost,” said Victor Carrillo, representing the Interstate Oil and Gas Commission at an energy and commerce committee hearing in 2005. “Such unnecessary regulation and the concomitant cost can only serve to retard the development of much needed natural gas in this country.”

Environmentalists say fracking chemicals may have contaminated drinking water in some places. This concern is the “Achilles’ heel” that could turn the public against fracking and kill its development, Salazar said.

To address it, the new regulations would require companies to disclose the chemicals they use in the fracking process, ensure that the drilling well is strong enough to prevent leaks and require companies to how what they do with “flowback,” fluid that flows back up the drilling well after fracking.

Some states already require companies to disclose information about their fracking fluids. The industry, initially opposed to disclosures, began to support such regulations after public concern with fracking fluid grew.

“The industry should be explaining to the public exactly what it is that they should be doing,” said Michael C. Judson, CEO of Forest Gate Energy, a Canadian fossil fuel energy company that has drilled in Utah.

Some companies have argued their formulas constitute trade secrets and have pushed successfully for states to include exemptions for trade secrets. Obama’s new draft regulations, as they appear in the Houston Chronicle, include this exemption as well.

The industry commonly uses Coca-Cola as an analogy to stress the importance of this exemption.

“On the side of a can of Coke, it tells you exactly what’s in it, but it doesn’t tell you how much of what is in it,” said John Robitaille, vice president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming. “Otherwise, anybody could just go out and gather up that stuff and make their own Coke, right?”

But the exemption worries environmentalists who say similar exemptions in state regulations are often abused.

“Some states, Wyoming in particular, have granted pretty broad exemptions for this trade secret loophole,” said Aaron Mintzes, policy advocate for Earthworks, an environmental advocacy group.


Should the federal government get involved?

More controversial than disclosure requirements, however, is whether the federal government should be regulating fracking at all or if it should be left to the states.

“States are in a much better position to regulate these issues because we are closer to what’s actually happening on the ground,” said Texas Sen. Jane Nelson, who sponsored a fracking fluid disclosure bill in the Texas Senate that is now law, in an email. “One size does not fit all.”

Some say that the broad federal regulations will hurt small energy companies disproportionately because they have fewer resources to spend on complying with regulations.

“They want the guy who drills the 1,000-foot well to be under the same rules and regulations as the guy who drills the 14,000-foot well,” said Gary Lundy, owner of Hogback Exploration, a small natural gas company in Arkansas. “They’re going to drive the small guy out of business.”

Environmentalists, meanwhile, say that the state regulations too often fall short of guarding public health, and say that the federal government should at least provide a “floor” upon which states may build subsequent regulations.

“That patchwork of state regs doesn’t really protect people’s health when it comes down to it,” said Jessica Ennis, a lobbyist at Earthjustice.


Too little or too much?

While the Obama administration takes industry fire for instituting any regulations at all, some environmentalists say they are a step in the right direction. Several say the administration  should go further.

“The administration could be doing more than it is,” said Amy Mall, an environmental policy expert at Earthworks.

Mall said the federal government should ban natural gas companies from using diesel in fracking fluid because of its high toxicity; ban dumping flowback in pits, where it could poison animals or leak into groundwater; and require companies to disclose trade secrets if there is a public health emergency.

The shortcomings of the regulations show that federal regulators are not moving fast enough to ensure that the country’s natural gas industry is growing safely, Mall said.

“They need to move more quickly, more rapidly, and more strongly on protecting the environment from the risks from oil and gas production,” she said.

But others have an opposition interpretation of the preliminary regulations — as another sign of what they say is Obama’s war on the oil and gas industry.

In a House hearing last month, Rep. John Fleming, R-La., slammed Salazar for the regulations.

“What I’m seeing here, sir, is a lot of new regulations that handcuffs those on the front line who are doing this,” he said. “What has happened recently or even in the last few years that we have to now rush to come out with all of these federal rules that we never had before?”

“The fact of the matter is we are doing a tremendous amount of hydraulic fracking,” Salazar said. “And we need to makes sure we’re doing it right.”

Salazar added that the rules are “very appropriate, common-sense measures.”

The draft regulations will be released in “the next couple weeks,” Salazar said last month. They will be open to public comment before going into effect.