During her first appearance before the House Committee on Natural Resources last Wednesday, Department of Interior (DOI) Secretary Sally Jewell, a former business executive and an engineer, got a gander at a political divide as wide as the Grand Canyon.

“There are differences of opinion on this committee, pretty much divided one side to the other,” Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), the committee’s ranking member, told her. “Every once in a while we can reach across party lines, but we differ significantly.”

During the two and a half-hour session, Jewell was called upon by Republicans to right what they consider to be a faltering agency that promotes “economically devastating policies,” misses deadlines and sometimes doesn’t return phone calls. Democrats petitioned for a revamped energy policy and a “use it or lose it” requirement on leasing federal lands for oil and gas development.

“…[U]nder the Obama administration, we’ve experienced four and a half years of flawed and economically devastating policies that have kept the American people’s resources under lock and key,” said Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-WA). “In my opinion, the direction of the Interior Department has veered far off course and clear, troubling patterns have emerged that I believe need to be fixed.” The committee is “really running out of patience” with DOI delays in responding to multiple oversight requests, some of them dating back to the era of Secretary Ken Salazar. Hastings also threatened subpoenas if DOI doesn’t demonstrate more haste in responding to Congressional requests.

Jewell said DOI is committed to being responsive to requests. “Before you feel a need to submit a document request, I’m very happy to have a one-on-one conversation with you…I appreciate the role of oversight of this committee, and I’m committed to upholding that,” she said.

Democrats were less critical of DOI but no less interested in pushing their agenda at the agency. “On our side, we believe that we need a new energy policy,” DeFazio told the secretary. “We essentially are still under the Bush-Cheney energy policy, which was really designed to make us more dependent on fossil fuels. Despite that, today we are less dependent on fossil fuels…Oil production, despite some protestations from the other side, is higher now than at the end of the Bush administration, from public lands. We are less dependent upon foreign oil from a combination of production on public and private lands.”

DeFazio said the oil and gas industry should explore the lands that are already available to it for leasing. “…[A]fter those are fully developed if we need more oil or gas resources, come and ask?” he said.

This seemed to be in line with Jewell’s thinking. “There are many lands that are available…for development that have been leased, and we certainly are encouraging people to develop those lands or to give up those leases if they no longer want them so that we can put them back in the pool,” Jewell said. “I think that there are lots of opportunities to develop what is currently leased before we lease other areas.”

However, when asked by Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-SC) whether she thought the Atlantic would be included in the administration’s next five-year offshore leasing plan, Jewell indicated that it would. Opening the Atlantic to oil and gas activity has been fought by environmentalists and some states, New Jersey, for instance, but it has been sought by others, such as Virginia, that want the revenue such activity would generate (see NGI, June 17).

Jewell said barring any surprises from the environmental impact study, there would be geological and geophysical assessments done to allow inclusion of the Atlantic in leasing plans if the oil and gas potential exists. “I haven’t heard anything to suggest that if the oil and gas potential is there that it wouldn’t be included in the next five-year plan,” Jewell said.

An equally fractious issue within the committee and now on Jewell’s shoulders is the government’s oversight of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) on federal lands. Republicans want states-only oversight and Democrats complain that proposed draft federal rules fall short. Jewell has a mechanical engineering degree, understands fracking and has fracked wells herself, as she reminded the panel more than once.

Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO) asked Jewell about the proposed fracking rules for federal lands at DOI’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The proposal is out for comment (see NGI, June 10).

“The states are already doing a good job of that [regulating fracking], and some people would rather talk about science,” Lamborn said. “And you’re an engineer so you know that the geology and hydrology of every state is not the same, and Alaska is not the same as Hawaii, for instance. Why not let the states, who know their own hydrology and geology better, do their own regulation instead of a one-size-fits-all imposed fiat, bureaucratic mandate from Washington?”

Jewell responded that there are “baseline standards” that apply to fracking operations no matter the geology or hydrology of the region where the fracking is occurring. “Wellbore integrity, flowback fluids and what is in the fluids themselves…Colorado does a nice job; Wyoming does a nice job [of regulating]. If the standards of the states meet or exceed the federal standards, we are fully supportive of the state or tribal standards,” she said. “But some states do not have regulations, and technology is moving into those states. So we’re talking about baseline minimum standards on federal lands.”

She was asked by Rep. John Fleming (R-LA) about comments made by her predecessor, Ken Salazar, that there have been no documented cases of well water contamination caused by fracking. “I’m not aware of documented cases,” Jewell said. “I will say that bad cement jobs cause communication between reservoirs that is exacerbated by fracks, so having wellbore integrity is absolutely essential; having to frack under regulations helps provide for that.”

Stepping up for the other side of the fracking debate, Rep. Matthew Cartwright (D-PA) recounted some recent fracking-related incidents that occurred above ground in his state and others.

“In July of 2012 in Bradford County, PA, there was an explosion at a wellhead, and as a result 4,700 gallons of hydrochloric acid escaped. Were you aware of that incident?”

Responded Jewell: “Not specifically the hydrochloric acid spill, no.”

“In March of this year in Wyoming County, PA, there was an explosion at a hydrofracking gas wellhead. It resulted in a release of fracking fluid at a rate of 800 gallons per minute escaping. That is 48,000 gallons per hour, and it took 24 hours to cap the situation. So the estimates of how much of the fracking fluid escaped range between 400,000 gallons and 1.15 million gallons — fracking fluid that contained all sorts of other additives, solvents, additives that we were not privy to. Were you aware of that incident?

Jewell: “I’ve been aware that there are incidences with flowback fluids, the management of that and accidents associated with those, yes.”

“In January of 2013 there was a man from Duluth, MN, killed in a fracking accident in North Dakota,” Cartwright noted. “Were you aware of that one?”

“I was not,” said Jewell.

Continued Cartwright, “…[A]ll I ask is for that you to be sure to conduct thorough and real research from disinterested sources and not simply take at face value the glib comments of spectators to the fracking industry before making a decision on whether national rules for fracking safety are appropriate. Will you do that?”

“I will, and I believe my colleagues have been doing that throughout the process.”

Cartwright and some other fracking skeptics on the panel found fault with the proposed BLM fracking rule’s reliance on the industry-funded website fracfocus.org for fracking chemicals disclosure. “The deficiencies of fracfocus as a mechanism for public disclosure…is becoming increasingly apparent. For example, a recent report from Harvard University concluded that fracfocus ‘creates obstacles to regulatory compliance’ and seems ‘structurally skewed to delete records [see NGI, April 29].’

“Another problem is that the rule does not require the disclosure of fluids prior to operations occurring on federal lands; does not require the monitoring of groundwater in the vicinity of proposed fracking projects prior to operations commencing; and also allows the operator to exempt from disclosure chemicals and formulas based on trade secret claims…[C]an you explain why these weaknesses remain in the BLM’s proposal?”

“We’re talking about minimum federal standards, and they are out for comment,” said Jewell. “We don’t believe it’s practical in all cases to get advance notice on what’s in the frack fluid, but in the case of trade secrets, we reserve the right to request that information, and the operators are required to provide that to us. We are certainly not going to stand in the way of states that want to be more stringent in their regulation.

“Having fracked wells myself, there are basics that you must have, and this is what the standards do…We’re coming up with standards that we believe are going to work effectively for the lion’s share of lands that are under our management.”

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