Interior Secretary Ken Salazar Tuesday said the department is weighing how it will move forward with a policy requiring producers to disclose the fluids associated with hydraulic fracturing (fracking) on public lands. Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) oversees 250 million acres, which contains 11% of the nation's natural gas supply.
Based on information submitted by industry, government officials and conservationists at a meeting held at Interior's headquarters in Washington, DC, Salazar indicated that a decision would be forthcoming in "weeks and months."
Due to industry advancements, "there is a lot more opportunity for natural gas, frankly, because of the fact that fracking is being used," he said. There is a "bright future for natural gas," and "you will see [the] administration and Department of Interior...will push us in that direction."
But fracking is a "hot and very difficult issue...So the question is really in my mind how we move forward in a way that can reassure the American public that what we are doing is in fact safe," he said.
Fracking is a process in which fluids are injected at high pressure into underground rock formations to fracture the rock and increase the flow of fossil fuels. Opponents contend that the use of fracking fluids should be regulated at the federal level, saying they have seeped into groundwater supplies across the nation. But proponents argue that the states should continue to regulate the practice.
"Natural gas offers a tremendous opportunity for our country," said White House energy czar Carol Browner. She called on the federal government and the industry to set aside their differences and find common ground. She believes there is broad support for natural gas.
Approximately 90% of the wells currently drilling on public lands are stimulated by the fracking technique, according to Marcilynn Burke, BLM deputy director.
"Despite this growth [in fracking], the BLM's current regulations of hydraulic fracturing operations are limited. In fact there are only a few regulations with respect to hydraulic fracturing, and even those regulations may not be as salient today as when we first promulgated them," she said.
"For example, the regulations specify different requirements for routine operations versus nonroutine operations. If an operator is performing a routine hydraulic fracturing of a well, the operator must simply notify and report to the BLM within 30 days of that activity." But if an operator is performing a nonroutine activity, he must obtain prior approval from the BLM before the activity can begin. The regulations, however, do not define what is routine and what is nonroutine, Burke said.
In July, the House Natural Resources Committee defeated an attempt to require oil and gas operators to publicly disclose the chemicals used during fracking on public lands managed by the Interior and Agriculture departments (see Daily GPI, July 15).
Some companies, including gas producers, have already begun disclosing the components of their fracking fluid, while the major national and regional hydrofracking service providers have agreed to submit "timely and complete information" to help the Environmental Protection Agency conduct its study on hydrofracking and its impact on drinking water quality.
Halliburton went one step further, announcing it has set up a website to publicly disclose its fracking fluids and has introduced an ecofriendly fracking fluid system made up of materials sourced entirely from the food industry (see Shale Daily, Nov. 16; Nov. 10).
BLM's Steve Salzman, the division chief of fluid minerals, noted that federal officials manage 700 million acres of subsurface mineral estate, mostly in the western part of the United States. Fracking "has increased steadily in the last decade," he said. "The types of formations are much less permeable than previous ones."
Under BLM rules, operators "at all times" are responsible for protecting freshwater-bearing zones from drilling-related activities, he said. BLM also has regulations in place that cover produced water in workover pits. However, there are no requirements on the books to disclose the chemicals used to fracture wells, even for "nonroutine" drilling operations.
In Wyoming, 68% of the minerals are on federal land, explained Tom Doll, who has supervised the Oil & Gas Conservation Commission since 2009.
"Other than shallow coalbed methane wells primarily in northeastern Wyoming, 100% of all of the oil and natural gas wells are hydraulically fractured," Doll said. "If we weren't able to use hydraulic fracturing in the state of Wyoming, wells would not be economic by any stretch of the imagination."
Without allowing operators to fracture their wells, "that would be a negative impact on Wyoming's economy. We gain tax revenue from the severance tax...My agency is completely funded by the industry with the conservation tax. Wyoming has no income tax and a low sales tax. Fracking is a reality and it means something to each individual in the state of Wyoming."
On Sept. 15 Wyoming became the first state to implement rules giving the public more access to information about chemicals used to fracture wells (see Daily GPI, Aug. 31). The only hitch to date in implementing the new rules has been related to proprietary information for some of the chemical companies, Doll said.
"We've had an interesting time with installation of the rules. We found out that the secondary chemical market had not been contemplated when we were addressing disclosure...There are chemical suppliers that all of the sudden learned that Wyoming had a disclosure requirement...
"We don't have provisions to protect proprietary chemistry or information, but we can protect trade secrets," said Doll. "We have, on about 11 occasions to this point, issued a trade secret exemption to our disclosure requirement. I don't expect that there's going to be massive flood of requests, but we do have those requests weekly from various, different chemical suppliers and manufacturers."
Since the 1950s, when the state began tracking oil and gas drilling "there have been no confirmed cases of groundwater contamination in state of Wyoming," said Doll.