A Farewell to Fracking Regulations

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Trump Administration issues final rule rescinding Obama-era fracking regulation.

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The debate over hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking,” has a long and heated history, leaving industry and environmental activists at loggerheads. The Trump Administration recently stoked the debate even further, as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) took the final steps to halt an Obama-era fracking regulation.

The BLM, an agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior, recently rescinded a rule aimed at protecting the environment from the ill effects of fracking. The agency claimed that repealing the rule would save millions of dollars per year and eliminate redundancy with existing state-level fracking regulations.

The rule being rescinded had been established under the Obama Administration to create a framework of oversight, disclosure, and operating standards “to ensure the environmentally responsible development of oil and gas resources on Federal and Indian lands.”

It had sought to remedy the potential risk of fracking to underground water sources and to manage the disposal of pollutants resulting from fracking operations. Fracking raises these concerns because the technique extracts natural gas from rock formations deep underground by pumping water, sand, and chemicals into the ground at high pressure to fracture the rock, which subsequently releases gas trapped within. The gas can then be recaptured on the surface and stored, but leaves the water and other material injected into the ground in need of disposal. This, in turn, can cause potential contamination of water supplies, as well as seismic activity.

To this end, the rule included several requirements for oil and gas operators, such as the submission of fracking applications to the BLM for agency approval and verification about the fracking well’s structural integrity.

Under President Trump, the BLM reasoned that removing these requirements would likely not increase the environmental and health risks associated with fracking. The agency stated that, as an initial matter, the BLM already has “an extensive process in place to ensure that operators conduct oil and gas operations in an environmentally sound manner that protects resources.”

Moreover, according to the BLM, many of the Obama-era rule’s fracking-specific requirements were already consistent with industry practice, which appreciably reduces potential harms. Perhaps more importantly, the BLM found that all 32 states with federal oil and gas operations already have laws or regulations that address fracking.

With steadily improving industry practices and comprehensive state regulatory programs, the BLM argued that the requirements in the Obama-era rule amounted to an unnecessarily burdensome and redundant regulation—one that could potentially save the industry between $14 million to $32 million in regulatory compliance costs.

Additionally, the BLM noted in its repeal that implementation of the Obama-era fracking rule had already been complicated by litigation. Industry groups had previously challenged the authority of the BLM to enact the fracking regulation, prompting a suspension of the rule by the U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming. Since then, the rule faced further litigation, which resulted in the fracking rule’s never going into effect. The BLM stated that by rescinding the rule, the agency would circumvent the need for any additional litigation over the authority of the BLM to issue such a rule.

Oil and gas industry groups applauded the decision to repeal the Obama-era rule. Barry Russell, president and CEO of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said in a statement that “the rescinding of this burdensome rule…will save our member companies and those operating on federal lands hundreds of millions of dollars in compliance costs without any corresponding safety benefits.”

Kathleen Sgamma, president of Western Energy Alliance, similarly stated that “it was clear from the start that the federal rule was redundant with state regulation and politically motivated, as the prior Administration could not point to one incident or regulatory gap that justified the rule.”

On the other hand, environmentalist groups expressed concerns that the rule’s repeal by the Trump Administration represents an attack on the environment. Mike Freeman, an attorney at the nonprofit organization, Earthjustice, reportedly stated that the repeal is “just another example of the Trump Administration sacrificing our public lands, air, and water in order to pad the bottom line of oil and gas companies.”

The repeal took effect on December 29, 2017.