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Interior's Jewell Says Local Frack Bans 'Wrong Way to Go'

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said she thinks local bans on hydraulic fracturing (fracking) are "the wrong way to go" because they're based on fear, not science, and would lead to regulatory confusion for the oil and gas industry as it looks to develop shale formations.

Meanwhile, Jewell ordered the Department of Interior (DOI) to begin a comprehensive strategy to protect and restore sagebrush lands -- especially in the Great Basin region of California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and Utah -- from wildfires. The region is habitat to the greater sage-grouse, a bird affected by oil and gas activities and which federal officials hope to avoid listing as an endangered species (see Daily GPI, Dec. 9, 2014). 

In an interview Sunday with radio station KQED, Jewell said there was a lot of misinformation being spread about fracking.

"Localized or statewide efforts, in many cases, don't understand the science behind it," Jewell said. "I think there needs to be more science. We are relying on organizations like the U.S. Geological Survey and other scientists to really help us understand what's happening on the landscapes with [fracking] and also deepwater injections [and] induced seismicity.

"There are a lot of fears out there in the general public, and that manifests itself with local laws or regional laws. We've seen that in a number of states. What we need is sound science [to drive] our decision-making. As a regulator, that's exactly what we're relying on as we are looking at releasing our own fracking regulations, which have been out for public comment," (see Shale Daily, July 24, 2013).

Jewell also took aim at two California counties, Mendocino and San Benito, for enacting bans on fracking last November (see Shale Daily,Nov. 10, 2014). Neither county has a substantial amount of oil and gas drilling.

"I would say that is the wrong way to go," Jewell said. "I think it's going to be very difficult for [the] industry to figure out what the rules are if different counties have different rules. But I will say that the public is speaking. They are concerned about this, and they want to make sure that any kind of oil and gas activity is done safely and responsibly, in terms of their water supply and in terms of their communities.

"That is an industry responsibility, and I've made it very clear to [the] industry that it's not my job to defend their practices; it's their job to both ensure their practices are safe and then communicate with communities that their practices are safe. I think these localized actions are reflective of a fear and a lack of understanding of the science of what's really going on."

On Tuesday, Jewell issued a secretarial order for DOI to implement a strategy to protect sagebrush, beginning with the 2015 fire season. The strategy's goals include reducing the size and severity of fires, fighting the spread of cheatgrass and other invasive species, and deploying its fire management resources in the most effective locations.

"Targeted action is urgently needed to conserve habitat for the greater sage-grouse and other wildlife in the Great Basin, as well as to maintain ranching and recreation economies that depend on sagebrush landscapes," Jewell said in a statement. "The secretarial order further demonstrates our strong commitment to work with our federal, state, tribal and community partners to reduce the likelihood and severity of rangeland fire, stem the spread of invasive species, and restore the health and resilience of sagebrush ecosystems.

"These efforts will help governors, state, tribal and local fire authorities, and those landowners on the ground -- including rangeland fire protection associations and rural volunteer fire departments -- make sure they have the information, training and tools to more effectively fight the threat of rangeland fires. To protect these landscapes for economic activity and wildlife like the greater sage-grouse, we need a three-pronged approach that includes strong federal land management plans, strong state plans, and an effective plan to address the threat of rangeland fire."

Last September, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) released a list of recommendations for conserving the habitat and mitigating any impacts to the greater sage-grouse (see Daily GPI, Sept. 10, 2014). The bird was a candidate for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act in 2010, but following a court settlement in 2011, FWS agreed to hold off on making a decision on whether to list it by Sept. 30, 2015 (see Daily GPI, Dec. 30, 2011).

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