SALT LAKE CITY – Utah will join three other energy-rich states in a lawsuit challenging a fracking rule recently issued by the Bureau of Land Management, under the purview of the Department of Interior, in March. The rule goes into effect in June and imposes regulatory power over hydraulic fracturing operations on public and tribal lands.
Utah will join Wyoming, North Dakota and Colorado in a lawsuit challenging the rule, saying it unlawfully interferes with state regulations that already address the process, Gov. Gary R. Herbert said in a press statement issued Monday.
The lawsuit suit also contends the rule is unnecessary, duplicative, and will result in a reduction in energy production on federal and tribal lands without any demonstrable environmental or administrative benefits.
Herbert made the announcement during remarks at the annual business meeting of the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, a group he chairs.
“There is no question the practice of hydraulic fracturing should be regulated in order to ensure protection of the environment,” Herbert said in his press statement. “However, adoption of the proposed rule would create an inconsistent, costly and inefficient regulatory system that provides no additional environmental protection or public safety than is offered by programs already enforced by the state.”
In its statement released in March, however, the Interior Department said that, as the rule applies only to development on public and tribal lands and includes a process so that states and tribes may request variances from provisions for which they have an equal or more protective regulation in place, it will avoid duplication while enabling the development of more protective standards by state and tribal governments.
“Of wells currently being drilled,” the Interior Department said in its March 20 release, “over 90 percent use hydraulic fracturing.”
What is fracking?
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a method of extracting oil or gas from deep underground. It involves the injection of a fluid mixture of water, chemicals and materials such as sand or man-made ceramic particles into shale beds in order to free up petroleum resources. The process causes fractures in the rocks below the earth’s surface, which are opened and widened by injecting the fluid mixture at very high pressure.
The combination of fracking and innovations in horizontal drilling has increased oil and natural gas production substantially by freeing up petroleum products that were previously not recoverable. Fracking is responsible for the recent boom in U.S. oil production, according to a Wired report by Mason Inman published in January 2015.
Fracking in Utah
In Utah, about 60 percent of oil and gas extraction happens in Uintah and Duchesne counties, said John Rogers, assistant director of the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining. It also takes place in Carbon, Emery, Grand and San Juan counties.
There are no currently active oil wells in Washington County, Washington County Administrator Dean Cox said. Historically, the last active wells were located in the North Creek area near Virgin in the 1960s.
Due to a downturn in oil prices, there are only six active drilling sites in Utah, down from 36 at the high point, Rogers said. But the numbers will increase if oil prices rise, it’s a cyclical business.
Fracking has been occurring in Utah since the 1960s.
“Hydraulic fracturing is nothing new,” Rogers said, “but we’ve never had any contamination here.”
Controversy and regulation
Generally speaking – not particular to Utah – fracking has become controversial because of reported contamination of wells and groundwater; the lack of disclosure about the chemicals used in fracking; and concerns about storage and disposal of fracking fluids.
The Interior Department released its final rule for fracking on public and tribal lands March 20. According to the Interior Department, the new rules will support safe and responsible fracking; improve safety; and protect groundwater by updating requirements for well-bore integrity, wastewater disposal and public disclosure of chemicals used in fracking.
Several communities in the U.S. have banned fracking within their borders, according to foodandwaterwatch.org, and some states have tightened regulations.
Other states are prohibiting local bans. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill Monday prohibiting fracking bans, and similar efforts are cropping up in other states, according to a Wall Street Journal report by Russell Gold, updated May 18.
“Utah has a strong regulatory system in place for oil and gas development, including hydraulic fracturing,” Herbert said. “So far, there have been no instances of environmental damage in Utah related to the integrity of a well undergoing a hydraulic fracturing operation. This is yet another unfortunate example of federal regulatory overreach.”
Most of the federal and tribal lands on which the BLM has jurisdiction and where the new federal rule will apply are located in states that have been effectively regulating oil and natural gas operations, Herbert said, including hydraulic fracturing, for decades.
Rogers said the new BLM rules have the potential to slow down growth in the oil and gas industry. Wells on private and state lands will continue to be monitored by the state, but wells on federal lands will have to contend with the new regulations.
“It’ll hurt the overall economy of the whole state, because the state is 67 percent federal land – that’s the problem,” Rogers said. “That doesn’t mean much currently, but when oil prices go back up, drilling activity will increase.”
“It’s a very cyclical business,” Rogers said. “Just as quick as it went down, it could go back up and they’ll be back in there drilling.”
The new rules will take longer to comply with, he said.
Western state officials believe that because of the broad differences in geology, hydrology and topography across the West, the states are best equipped to design, administer and enforce laws and regulations related to oil and gas development, Herbert’s press statement said.
The benefits of the new BLM rule are questionable while the estimated costs of are significant, the governor said. The federal rule is likely to add years to the permitting process and hamper the drilling of thousands of wells in Utah.
New BLM fracking rule
The Interior Department released its final rule for fracking on public and tribal lands in March, and it will go into effect in late June. The rule includes these components:
- Provisions to ensure protection of groundwater supplies by requiring a validation of well integrity and strong cement barriers between the wellbore and water zones through which the wellbore passes.
- Requirements to publicly disclose chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing to the BLM through the website FracFocus.org, within 30 days of completing fracturing operations.
- Higher standards for temporary storage of recovered waste fluids from hydraulic fracturing to reduce risks to air, water and wildlife.
- Measures to lower the risk of cross-well contamination with chemicals and fluids used in the fracturing operation by requiring companies to submit more detailed information on the geology, depth and location of preexisting wells to give the BLM an opportunity to better evaluate and manage unique site characteristics.
Read full text of the department’s final rule: 20150326 DOI-BLM Final Rule – Oil and gas; hydraulic fracturing on federal, Indian lands
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