Western States Wary of Federal Fracking Regs

  • May 04, 2012
  • By Jim Malewitz

Public officials in three Western states this week relayed a simple message to members of U.S. Congress: leave fracking regulations to us.

Testifying Wednesday before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, regulators and policymakers from Colorado, Utah and Wyoming said that anticipated federal rules on hydraulic fracturing on public lands would stymie natural gas development in the Western United States, harming state economies largely dependent on energy revenues.

“A one-size-fits all regulatory scheme will be devastating to Colorado,” said Colorado state representative Jerry Sonnenberg. “These needs and concerns are best addressed by those that understand our state.”

The congressional field hearing, held at the Colorado Capitol, comes amid expectations that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management will soon regulate the extraction method on federally owned lands, which make up large portions of Western States.

As has been the case throughout the U.S., the prospect of natural gas drilling has spurred intense debate between environmentalists and industry proponents, largely due to the method used to speed up extraction of gas stored in shale deposits. Through horizontal hydraulic fracturing — also known as fracking — engineers free the gas by blasting millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and toxic chemicals deep into wells.

POLITICO Pro reported Monday (April 30) that it obtained a draft notice from the U.S. Interior Department spelling out plans to require drillers to seek federal approval and carry out mechanical integrity tests before fracking a well. The rules would also require disclosure of the chemicals mixed into fracking fluids.

State and industry officials called the federal regulations redundant, saying states are already addressing environmental and safety concerns through rules drawn up by local regulators with knowledge of varied state resources and geography.

“Such layers of federal rules on top of state rules is unreasonable,” said Shawn Reese, policy director for Wyoming Governor Matt Mead.

Reese said “states are more nimble,” when it comes to dealing with an evolving industry, and that federal involvement would harm Wyoming's vast energy economy, adding months to permitting processes that currently take weeks, especially as the federal bureau shrinks because of dwindling funding.

The federal government owns nearly half the land in Wyoming and 67 percent of the mineral rights within state boundaries.

States such as Colorado, Wyoming and Montana have recently enacted chemical disclosure rules, among other regulations of hydraulic fracturing, but such rules vary widely. Environmental groups say they don't go far enough to regulate an industry that's been exempted from federal water and air rules. Most state disclosure rules, for instance, allow companies to decide which chemicals will be classified as “trade secrets,” and therefore remain undisclosed. Colorado's exemptions, however, still require companies to disclose the chemical family of the substance and to notify health care workers of the full ingredients.

Additionally, states such as Colorado have fewer than two dozen inspectors to oversee thousands of active wells.

“We see a need for coordinated regulation of hydraulic fracturing at all levels – federal, state and local,” said Bruce Baizel, an attorney for the environmental advocacy group Earthworks. “In times of constrained budgets, relatively low agency pay scales and a lack of trained personnel, careful and appropriate attention by all levels of government is necessary.”