BLM Fracking Rule Letter to Sen. Sherrod Brown

August 19, 2013

The Honorable Sherrod Brown
United States Senate
713 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510-3503

Dear Senator Brown,

The undersigned organizations are concerned with the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) draft rule related to hydraulic fracturing (fracking) on federal and tribal lands[1], and we urge you to consider our concerns and share them with the BLM and Obama Administration.  We ask you to advocate for:

  • The prohibition of fracking in critical/sensitive areas, including National Forests, land contiguous to National Parks, and source water areas, among others
  • Banning the use of open waste pits
  • The full disclosure of chemical inputs and thorough pre-drilling water testing
  • And banning the use of diesel and other toxic chemicals

The rule provides much needed guidelines for drilling activities on federal and tribal land that the BLM has jurisdiction over, and the current draft rule is actually in its second iteration, as the first version elicited approximately 175,000 comments to the BLM.  Despite that most of these comments were likely critical of the rule’s deficiencies, the BLM, instead of correcting these deficiencies based on received comments, yielded to industry pressure and weakened the rule in its second version

The BLM holds more than 700 million acres of subsurface mineral rights across the United States, and while much of the land attached to these rights is in the western US, there are parcels of land that would be affected in the east and, specifically, Ohio.  In Ohio, the most notable impacts will occur in the Wayne National Forest, Ohio’s only National Forest.  But the BLM also holds mineral rights within non-federal lands, and it appears to intend to lease these lands for fracking as well; it is currently pursuing leasing in Blue Rock State Forest.

The rule is supposed to be a comprehensive attempt at providing proper regulation to ensure a greater level of protection from fracking that occurs on federal and tribal lands, and update the existing regulations, which are recognized as inadequate.  However, the current version of the rule falls short of achieving even minimal protection for a variety of reasons. It is also important to recognize that although significantly updating existing regulations will provide more protections against the harms of drilling, these regulations cannot eliminate the environmental and public health risks that fracking poses.

Perhaps the most concerning deficiency with the rule is that it fails to address or recognize that certain areas, such as Wayne National Forest, might be too sensitive or critical for fracking activities.  Inherent in the practice of fracking is land industrialization, inevitable air pollution, eventual water pollution, and an enormous increase in traffic and water use.  For lands that have been designated or set aside because of their ecological value, or because they contain a drinking water source, there must be some mechanism to make them “off limits” to fracking activity.  In fact, the importance of a provision to protect certain unique and sensitive areas was outlined as a recommendation by President Obama’s shale gas advisory subcommittee in its August, 2011 90-Day Report.[2]

The rule is devoid of many basic best-management practices and requirements.  Perhaps the most glaring of these is the failure to prohibit the use of fracking waste pits.  These pits are highly problematic for a number of reasons, including that animals can easily access them, the risk of failure/contamination relative to other containment methods (e.g. closed-loop systems), and the lack of requirements related to liner integrity.  The BLM even recognized these and other risks related to open pits in a 2012 Instructional Memorandum advising BLM employees to attempt to have drillers utilize closed-loop systems.[3]

The draft rule also does an inadequate job in regards to chemical disclosure.  The chemical disclosure requirement in the rule relies on FracFocus, which has been shown to be a flawed method of disclosure.[4]  In the current version of the rule, drilling companies do not need to provide the chemical constituents of their drilling fluid until after a well is fracked, they have the ability to shield themselves from disclosure based on trade secret provisions, and they do not even need to provide the exact inputs for each well, but rather merely provide the inputs for a representative well.  This is unacceptable and poses considerable risk to the environment and human health.  Instead, every chemical that is injected into each individual well should be disclosed before fracking occurs, trade secrets provisions should be completely eliminated, and thorough baseline water testing should be conducted prior to drilling.  The use of diesel fluid, as well as other toxic chemicals that have been proven to be dangerous, should also be prohibited.

The BLM rule also fails to address well construction guidelines and setbacks for specific areas such as houses, schools, and campgrounds.  Studies indicate that all well casings will fail at some point, and a significant number fail in the beginning of their lives.[5]  Thus it is essential that stringent well construction rules are adopted within this rule, recognizing that even thoughtfully designed well construction rules cannot prevent the failure of well casings over time.  Responsible siting of wells is also important.  Sufficient set backs should be adopted to protect homes, schools, campgrounds and recreational areas, water sources, and other sensitive locations.

Finally, air pollution regulations should be incorporated into the rule, as fracking sites are responsible for a substantial volume of concerning air contaminants, including methane, nitrogen oxides, and volatile organic compounds.  These emissions pose a grave risk to human health as well as the health of our climate.  The current BLM rule does not address these concerns, and should be altered to prevent the practice of flaring and require “green completions.”

Thank you for considering our recommendations to limit damage from fracking on public lands.  Although our recommendations will not mitigate all the risks associated with fracking, they provide much more meaningful protections than the current version of the BLM’s fracking rule.  Again, we urge you to contact the BLM directly, as well as the Obama Administration, and share our, and your, concerns about these rules.

Sincerely,

The Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association
Sierra Club Ohio Chapter

*A full list of organizations that signed on is available through the Sierra Club Ohio Chapter.


[1] Bureau of Land Management, US Department of the Interior, “Oil and Gas: Hydraulic Fracturing on Federal and Tribal Lands,” 43 CFR 3160; available from http://www.blm.gov/pgdata/etc/medialib/blm/wo/Communications_Directorate/public_affairs/hydraulicfracturing.Par.91723.File.tmp/HydFrac_SupProposal.pdf.

[2] U.S. Department of Energy, Shale Gas Production Subcommittee, Secretary of Energy Advisory Board, “The SEAB Gas Production Subcommittee Ninety-Day Report,” August 11, 2011.

[3] U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, “Instruction Memorandum No. 2013-033,” December 13, 2012, available from http://www.blm.gov/wo/st/en/info/regulations/Instruction_Memos_and_Bulletins/national_instruction/2013/IM_2013-033.html.

[4] Kate Konschink, Margaret Holden, and Alexa Shasteen, “Legal Fractures in Chemical Disclosure Laws,” Environmental Law Program Policy Initiative, Harvard Law School, April 23, 2013, available from, http://www.eenews.net/assets/2013/04/23/document_ew_01.pdf.

[5] Anthony Ingraffea, “Fluid Migration Mechanisms Due to Faulty Well Design and/or Construction: An Overview and Recent Experiences in the Pennsylvania Marcellus Play,” Physicians Scientists & Engineers for Healthy Energy, October, 2012, available from http://www.damascuscitizensforsustainability.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/PSECementFailureCausesRateAnalysisIngraffea.pdf.

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