How the Obama Administration Is Making Fracking on Public Lands Easier
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White House visitor logs show the president’s top adviser on energy and climate, Heather Zichal, met with the American Petroleum Institute, the Independent Petroleum Association of America and other industry groups 20 times last year in the run up to the rules proposal. They were further honed to industry specifications in a series of meetings between the oil and gas lobby and the White House Office of Budget Management, and are based on a piece of model legislation authored by Exxon for the American Legislative Exchange Council.
Under the rules, drillers will report chemicals used in fracking to an industry run site, FracFocus.org, already used in Pennsylvania and other states. The disclosures won’t need to be made until after a well is fracked. Nor will they be vetted for accuracy. Certain chemicals won’t even be disclosed at all, since they constitute alleged trade secrets. Furthermore, the rules would sanction drilling in close proximity to homes and schools, as well as allow wastewater — the toxic byproduct the of fracking — to be stored in open, outdoor pits.
Meanwhile, the rules weaken a requirement meant to ensure the structural integrity of drilling wells, which can leak methane and other chemical contaminants if cracked. Instead of having to submit documentation for each well, companies will only need report one of all their wells within a geological area.
“Using a single well as representative of all wells completely ignores the likelihood that one in 12 wells have some sort of well casing failure,” said Hugh MacMillan, a senior researcher with Food and Water Watch. “Six to eight percent of well casings fail within the first year, with higher percentages over time.”
MacMillan also expressed fears that the proposed regulations won’t cover a newer technique, known as acidizing, which involves pumping acid into the ground to dissolve rock formations and create pathways in shale for oil to flow out.
Underlying all these concerns is the fear held by many environmentalists that, no matter how heavily the industry is regulated, fracking is inherently toxic. “Trying to regulate fracking is like trying to build a safe cigarette,” said scientist and activist Sandra Steingraber. “You can put filters on cigarettes. You can have low tar cigarettes. But the answer to avoiding cancer from smoking is not to smoke.”
The issue of whether to push for more stringent laws that will mitigate against the impact of drilling or to advocate for the abolition of the practice has caused some considerable fissures in the environmental movement. The Natural Resources Defense Council worked with the drilling industry to write legislation governing fracking that was approved by lawmakers in Illinois last month, while those pushing for an outright ban in the state launched a three day sit-in in the governor’s office against the measure.
Steingraber favors a ban and was ejected from the Illinois statehouse for disrupting legislators following the approval of the fracking bill. Nevertheless, she’s spearheading an initiative to increase the already unprecedented number of comments the BLM has received during the public input period on the Obama-Exxon fracking rules. When the BLM first opened up the proposed laws for public review this spring they were inundated with 177,000 submissions, prompting the bureau to extend the submission deadline to August 23. Steingraber is working to ensure that public comments keep flowing and that this window of public participation furthers the overall anti-fracking movement.
In New York last winter, as the state’s moratorium on fracking expired and its Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) began preparing to file rules that would allow for drilling, she jumpstarted a similar effort. Through a website she established, ThirtyDaysOfFrackingRegs.com, Steingraber — a molecular biologist with a background in public health — broke down piece-by-piece the proposed laws, explaining their environmental consequences and providing a template for critics to submit their own comments. Ultimately, Steingraber said the site was responsible for 25,000 submissions to the DEC — more than 10 percent of the 200,000-plus mostly-critical comments the department received. These objections ended up being an important compliment to the hundreds of protests that took place against fracking statewide. The DEC eventually let the deadline to file rules lapse, which has delayedthe prospect of fracking in New York for at least a year.