Earlier today, the United States Department of the Interior released updated federal regulations on hydraulic fracturing for the 100,000-plus oil and gas wells on public lands.
The new rules aim to increase the safety of the controversial technique, which involves pumping millions of gallons of chemical-laced water down boreholes to crack the shale rocks beneath the Earth’s surface and release the previously encapsulated deposits of oil and natural gas. As Scientific American reported in 2013, those chemical cocktails have long been a legitimate source of concern for those opposed to the practice:
The exact fracking fluid cocktail is kept secret, although it can range over some 750 secret ingredients, such as coffee grounds or methanol. Each well requires some 7.5 million to 26.5 million liters of water for the fracking operation itself. Such tainted water has been found outside the Marcellus shale zone deep underground, although still more than a kilometer beneath groundwater supplies. And shallow wells fracked in other regions, such as West Virginia and Wyoming, have contaminated the groundwater.
Now, that information will be available to the public. When the new rules take effect in 90 days, companies will have to disclose the chemicals they injected into wells to the Bureau of Land Management after all operations are complete. But while demystifying the chemical make-up of fracking fluids is great, groundwater contamination is a whole other problem. Last year, Abrahm Lustgarten reported on an emergency shutdown of several injection sites in California that were pouring toxic wastewater into aquifers—some of which were protected by federal law. Luckily, contamination is not inevitable. Studies show that fracking can be done safely, and the new rules include provisions to prevent contamination of water supplies with fracking fluids.
Demystifying the chemical make-up of fracking fluids is great, but groundwater contamination is a whole other problem.
When oil and natural gas wells are drilled, companies will have to install and maintain cement barriers between the well walls and groundwater sources. While many existing wells have similar concrete barriers, they will now be subject to higher standards for both construction and testing to be sure they are structurally sound. When all that chemical-laden wastewater flows back up wells, companies will now also have to submit to higher standards for storing the recovered fluids in above-ground tanks to reduce the risk of contaminating the air and water, and putting wildlife at risk.
States and tribal lands will be able to implement their own regulations that are as stringent as—or even more protective than—the new federal rule. So states can limit or ban the practice as they see fit, like New York did in 2014 after a Health Department review found that fracking could pose health risks to the state’s residents.
Unsurprisingly, oil and gas companies are not enthusiastic about the new regulations. Erik Milito, director of industry operations for the American Petroleum Institute, told the New York Times that the rule “is just one more barrier to growth.” But even if the natural gas industry considers the new regulations unnecessary, they could ensure that energy independence in the United States isn’t achieved at the expense of the environment.