DeGette calls federal fracking rule ‘a good first step,’ but warns of ‘a devil’s bargain’

Gary Wockner speaking at the state Capitol on Wednesday. (Photo by Troy Hooper)

In a concession to the oil and gas industry, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar proposed a rule Friday that wouldn’t require the disclosure of hydraulic fracturing fluids until after the drilling of a well is completed.

U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette
, D-Colo., called the draft rule “a good first step” but said the “requirements for disclosure are seriously inadequate.” Initially, the Department of Interior proposed requiring companies to reveal the chemicals used in fracking before drilling commenced.

“We’re all seeking common-sense solutions to ensure the safety of natural gas production,” DeGette said, “but with all due respect, requiring disclosure after fracking has already occurred seems less common-sense and more ‘closing the door after the horse has left the barn.’

“Colorado has historically benefited greatly from a strong energy economy,” the congresswoman from Denver continued. “Our state’s vast natural gas reserves offer the promise of new jobs, new energy, and a stronger economy for the long-term. But it would truly be a devil’s bargain if the price we pay for oil and gas jobs is the health of our families and the integrity of our precious public lands.”

Companies rely on fracking — a process in which a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is flushed into the ground to release oil and gas deposits buried beneath rock — to drill most wells in the modern American West. A patchwork of state and local regulations has sprung up to try to address the impacts of fracking on the public’s health and the environment.

The Obama administration has placed an emphasis on reducing the nation’s dependence on foreign oil, advocating an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy that takes advantage of fossil fuels as well as cleaner resources like wind and solar. The president has singled out natural gas, noting that America has an almost 100-year supply that could create more than 600,000 jobs in the next decade.

Lobbyists for big oil companies like ExxonMobil worked with the Obama administration’s Office of Management and Budget to weaken the original Interior regulation proposed in February.

Despite the loosening of the proposed fracking rule, oil and gas proponents criticized Salazar’s offer.

“We will be doing a thorough review of the proposal but at first glance it indicates that the Department of the Interior and, in particular the Bureau of Land Management, may not fully appreciate the significant regulatory steps already undertaken by states such as Colorado, Texas, Wyoming and others to oversee the safe and responsible development of natural gas through the use of hydraulic fracturing,” said Tom Amontree, executive vice president for America’s Natural Gas Alliance.

Industry representatives contend that states are in better position to make rules governing fracturing since they each have their own unique geologic conditions and on-the-ground experts.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Association worries the Interior rule may conflict with state laws.

“Hydraulic fracturing is a highly engineered process which requires competent and knowledgeable supervision by regulators familiar with geologic conditions and technical specifications. Fortunately, in Colorado, every aspect of drilling is regulated by the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission, the state agency with technical knowledge of Colorado’s geological basins,” COGA wrote in an email. “With the adoption of the new [fracking] disclosure rule in Colorado, we are now operating under one of the strongest rules in the country. This new rule has been characterized as the most transparent and stringent set of hydraulic fracturing regulations and is setting the pace for the rest of the country.”

Colorado’s rules, however, have been called “empty words on a page” because of the 516 spills in 2011 the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission only assessed five fines. Watchdog groups contend the state’s commissioners are too cozy with industry. They demand more oversight.

States are struggling to keep pace with the surge in fracking and horizontal drilling.

In Colorado, local communities are fighting to have a say in how drilling is regulated, while Gov. John Hickenlooper and industry groups push for from-the-state-down rule-making.

Studies show fracking can contaminate groundwater, pollute the air and trigger earthquakes.

A field oversight hearing of the U.S. House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources was held in Denver on Wednesday, led by chairman Doug Lamborn, a Republican from Colorado Springs. In his opening remarks, Lamborn said “states have worked diligently to implement hydraulic fracturing regulations on their own lands” and he accused the Obama administration of hijacking those efforts and imposing its own blanket set of regulations with little state or tribal input.

Outside the hearing, critics called the subcommittee “a dog-and-pony show.” A group of fracking opponents took to the steps of the state Capitol where they unfurled a banner reading “Welcome Flat Earth Society” with photos of U.S. Reps. Scott Tipton, Cory Gardner, Lamborn and Mike Coffman.

Gary Wockner, state program director for Clean Water Action, labeled the four Republican congressmen from Colorado the “Flat Earth Society” because, to them, “what is up is down what is left is right and facts defy reality. They say the Obama administration is hindering oil and gas production but facts say that oil production in Colorado in 2011 was at an all time high. Natural gas production in Colorado in 2010 was at an all-time high. They say the Obama administration is hindering the leasing of public lands yet only 25 percent of the lands that they have leases on are being drilled – over 3 million acres they hold leases on are not being drilled. They say that the Obama administration is hindering drilling permits from moving forward at the same time the oil and gas industry is sitting on 602 permits they are not using. They say the Obama administration has slowed down the production of oil and gas, instead the Obama administration has increased the production of oil and in Colorado over what the Bush administration did. What we’re seeing from these congressmen are fake solutions to fake problems, including the three bills they introduced in the House last week.”

Tipton, Lamborn, Gardner and Coffman are in the pockets of big oil and gas companies, Wockner alleged, noting that over $700,000 has been donated to their campaigns. In return, he said the congressmen voted to give the industry $9 billion in tax breaks in 2011 alone.

Representatives for the congressmen could not be reached for comment.

Obama has called for an end to subsidies for the nation’s biggest oil and gas companies but members of the House and Senate whose campaigns have benefited from the industry continue to resist.

“As the president has made clear, this administration’s energy strategy is an all-out effort to boost American production of every available source of energy,” Salazar said in a prepared statement after releasing today’s draft rule. “As we continue to offer millions of acres of America’s public lands for oil and gas development, it is critical that the public have full confidence that the right safety and environmental protections are in place. The proposed rule will modernize our management of well stimulation activities – including hydraulic fracturing – to make sure that fracturing operations conducted on public and Indian lands follow common-sense industry best practices.”

The rule would affect drilling on 700 million acres of Bureau of Land Management land plus another 56 million acres of Indian lands, where thousands of oil and gas wells are drilled each year.

 

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About the Author

Troy Hooper

Troy Hooper covers environmental policy for the American Independent News Network. His work has been published in The Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News, Huffington Post, San Francisco Weekly, Playboy, New York Post, People and dozens of other publications. Hooper has covered the Winter Olympics in Italy, an extreme ski camp in South America and gone behind the scenes with Hunter S. Thompson on election night in 2004. Born and raised in Boulder, Hooper has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of California at Santa Barbara.

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