Calling them a common sense approach that would complement state efforts, U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on Thursday unveiled the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) revised draft rules for hydraulic fracturing (fracking) on all federal and Indian lands. The draft rules, which drew criticism from proponents and opponents of fracking, are in a 30-day comment period.

Jewell urged stakeholders to “look past the rhetoric” and focus on draft rules’ “merits.” Anticipating that critics would not be satisfied by these latest draft rules, Jewell, a one-time petroleum engineer, said the revised rules should be “good for industry and good for the American public.” Significantly the draft would allow states to remain in charge if their fracking regulations are strict enough.

Initial reactions were cool, with Independent Petroleum Association of America CEO Barry Russell contending that the federal action “solves no existing problem but creates additional burdens for independent producers and state regulators. Federal land management should encourage energy development; this rule discourages [it].” He said his group would seek an extension of the comment period and is hoping to schedule a face-to-face meeting with BLM to discuss the draft.

America’s Natural Gas Alliance took a more moderate stance. The group is encouraged that “the administration revisited its original proposal and appears to have made some favorable changes, including accounting for the expertise and work being done at the state level.”

BLM officials said more than 177,000 comments were submitted to the initial draft BLM rules issued in 2012 (see NGI, July 16, 2012). The revise of the draft incorporated some of the feedback.

“We know from experience that hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling methods can be used safely and effectively, employing many of the best management practices reflected in this draft rule,” said BLM Principal Deputy Director Neil Kornze. He added that BLM’s review of all of the comments generated last year convinced officials that public health and safety can be protected with increased regulatory flexibility and reduced duplication.

The draft rules focus on three major areas: handling flowback water in the fracking process, chemical disclosure requirements by operators, and increased assurances of wellbore integrity.

“I do understand how [fracking] works and how important it is to efficiently tap the resources that we have, and also the steps needed to ensure it is done safely and responsibly,” Jewell said. She called the new draft a “common sense approach.” As millions of acres of federal and Tribal lands are opened up to energy development, “it is absolutely critical that the public has full confidence that the right safety and environmental protections are in place.”

The 171-page document includes an expanded set of cement evaluation tools to ensure that usable water zones have been isolated and protected from contamination. There also is more detailed guidance on how trade secret claims would be handled. BLM said it modeled the proposed chemical disclosure rules based rules enacted in Colorado. BLM also cited Wyoming, Arkansas and Texas as providing good models for disclosure and oversight of oil and gas drilling operations.

The revised draft would require use of cement evaluation logs (CEL) in the place of the originally proposed cement bond logs (CBL). “The use of the broader term of CEL is intended to allow a variety of logging methods to be used to show the adequacy of cementing, including technologies such as ultrasonic logs, variable density logs, micro-seismograms, standard CBLs, CBLs with direction receiver array, ultrasonic pulse echo technique and isolation scanners,” the revised draft said. “CBLs would be accepted because they are one of the technologies included in CELs.”

With fracking taking place on 90% of the public lands where drilling is ongoing, Jewell said the draft rules attempt to complement the efforts of states with rules in place. “Under these proposed rules, the BLM will work with states and Tribes that already have rules in place so we don’t introduce duplication or delays.”

Anticipating concerns about regional and geological differences around the country, the revised draft rules also are flexible enough to accommodate various regional differences, she noted.

For environmental advocates who want fracking banned, Jewell said the stance “ignores the reality that fracking has been done safely for decades and has played a key role in unlocking our nation’s energy potential. There is no doubt that this essential tool will be used for decades to come.”

Questioning during an abbreviated teleconference tended toward skepticism about whether the updated rules went too far to accommodate industry over environmental concerns. For example, the draft document proposes to continue to use industry-supported website as the way for drilling operators to disclose chemicals used in fracking.

Several academic studies and environmental groups have questioned the veracity of the industry-created website, but Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes stressed that federal officials areopen to suggestions for other ways to ensure proper chemical disclosure is achieved. Harvard University, he noted, published a critical report about’s value as a “regulatory mechanism,” but BLM proposes to use it as a “disclosure mechanism.”

“If there are better ways to do that, then we are open to them,” Hayes said. “Our priority here is to make sure there is proper public information being provided.”

BLM is working with founders Ground Water Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission “so that operators may report chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing operations to BLM through the existing website, which is already well established and used by many states.”

BLM said it understands “the database is in the process of being improved and will in the near future have enhanced search capabilities and allow for easier reporting of information.” Well operators may either report to industry-backed or BLM, but in any case the agency intends to post all the information it receives on, which would serve as an information site for the public.

Possibly a good sign is that both producers and environmentalists appeared to be equally critical of the draft. In rulemaking it is generally understood that if neither side likes it, it may have hit that hallowed middle ground.

“At first blush, the [draft rule] appears to give producers greater flexibility in the management, permitting and reporting of fracking operations, but it does impose several new data gathering and operational responsibilities that were not” in last year’s proposed rule, said Timothy T. Chung, vice president of research for Washington, DC-based ClearView Energy Partners LLC. The “more lenient” proposal suggests a continuation of the Obama administration’s “give a little, take a little” energy policy, he said.

Improvements in the rule were made, but it still fell short of the expectations of both oil and natural gas producers and environmental groups. “While changes to the proposed rule attempt to better acknowledge the state role, BLM has yet to answer the question [of] why BLM is moving forward with these requirements in the first place,” said Erik Milito director of upstream and industry operations for the American Petroleum Institute (API).

But state rules don’t quite cut it on federal and Indian lands. In the draft, BLM explained why a federal rule was necessary. “The BLM recognizes the efforts of some states to regulate hydraulic fracturing and seeks to avoid duplicative regulatory requirements. However, it is important to recognize that a major impetus for a separate BLM rule is that states are not legally required to meet the stewardship standards applying to public lands and do not have trust responsibilities for Indian lands under federal lands.”

BLM could potentially finalize it in the third quarter based on the public comment schedule, said Cheung. However, the time line may change.

The Sierra Club said it was “alarmed and disappointed” by the “fundamental inadequacy” of the draft, which it claimed would “give polluters a free ride…Although no amount of regulation will make fracking acceptable, the proposed BLM rules fail even to take obvious steps to make it safer.

“This proposal does not require drillers to disclose all chemicals being used for fracking and continues to allow trade secret exemptions for the oil and gas industry. There is no requirement for baseline water testing and no setback requirements to govern how close to homes and schools drilling can happen. The rules also continue to allow the use of toxic diesel for fracking, as well as open pits for storing wastewater,” the environmental group said.

A spokesperson for Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead, an outspoken critic of federal oversight for fracking, said Jewell had notified the governor in advance of the draft, of which he was appreciative, but he planned no public comments.

“It’s my belief that the states are prudently regulating [fracking] and that BLM’s revised rule should closely track state regulations,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, the ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “Federal regulators seem to acknowledge as much by asking for comments on a process that would allow drilling companies to follow state and tribal regulations that meet or exceed those proposed by this rule. While I’m still reviewing the full rule, it appears BLM has addressed some of the concerns, but we still must guard against duplicative and potentially contradictory regulations.”

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