“Fracking.” It’s a bit of a dirty word – pumping millions of gallons of water, toxic chemicals, and sand into a well to free up oil and gas far below ground. Its widespread use is causing concerns from communities and conservationists worried about the effects it could have on water and land.
The Bureau of Land Management is trying to make oil and gas drilling that uses fracking – officially called “hydraulic fracturing” – a safer proposition for wells on BLM lands. This means instituting new standards for public disclosure of the chemicals and their volumes used in fracking, the integrity of well casings, and the treatment of “flow back water” or waste water that returns to the surface after a well is fracked. It’s also a part of the larger goal of “doing it right” – making smart choices about oil and gas drilling before holes are made in the ground.
The BLM’s draft rules on fracking have several important points. The rule requires temporary storage of “flowback” – the water, sand, and fracking fluid that comes back up out of a well that has been fracked – in lined pits or tanks, which will protect the area. However, this flowback has to be properly disposed of, and the new rules have not yet set standards for handling beyond on-site storage. Fracking fluid can poison streams and rivers near drilling sites, unless the flowback is properly dealt with.
Another important part of the new fracking rules are the standards for well construction. By setting a safety standard for the cement lining (or casing) of the wells, the BLM is trying to ensure that groundwater isn’t contaminated by fracking.
Unfortunately the proposed rules don’t require drillers to publicly disclose information about the fracking chemicals and their volumes until after the drilling has been completed. TWS and others have long argued that the public has a right to know what chemicals are being used in hydraulic fracturing operations before drilling takes place.
Even though the industry insists that fracking is “safe”, many have resisted increasing calls from the public to fully disclose the chemical substance that are put into the ground. Each fracking operation can use tens of thousands of gallons of chemicals. But by keeping communities in the dark until after a well is fracked, it limits people’s ability to protect themselves.
Disclosing the contents of fracking fluids helps communities and first responders be better prepared for a spill, and help determine responsibility for any chemical contamination of underground water supplies.
The BLM’s draft rules for fracking operations on federal public lands are a step in the right direction. Oil and gas drilling will always be a dirty business. Setting safety standards helps protect communities and wild lands and waters from contamination, and part of “doing it right.”