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The age of plenty

Greens slam Obama for draft rules about fracking on federal land

The Obama administration is still playing it cool with environmentalists. First it skirted the protracted battle over the Keystone XL pipeline, which could carry dirty tar sands oil from Canada to the American Gulf Coast. Now it’s facing opposition to proposed fracking regulations on tens of millions of acres of government land.

Yesterday, the Bureau of Land Management filed draft rules to govern the extraction of shale oil and gas through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which involves injecting chemical-laced water into the ground to crack rock and force oil to the surface. The oil and gas regulations have not been updated since 1988, long before the new technology came along. The BLM currently manages 48,699 oil and gas leases on 38 million acres of federal land. Those wells produced $23 billion worth of oil and gas in 2012, earning $2.6 billion in royalty payments for the government.

The proposals would allow drillers to skirt disclosures about the chemical composition of fracking fluid by claiming them as trade secrets. “The revised proposed rule makes it clear that an operator should not disclose any information … that it believes to be exempt from disclosure under the Trade Secrets Act,” the proposal states. Instead, well operators would file an affidavit claiming trade secret protection for the chemical after drilling—at which point, the deed is already done.

The BLM also eliminated proposed disclosure requirements for so-called flowback fluids, which surface after drilling and must be disposed of in containment ponds or tanks.

Environmentalists aren’t happy. “After reviewing the draft rules, we believe the administration is putting the American public’s health and well-being at risk, while continuing to give polluters a free ride,” Michael Brune, the Sierra Club’s executive director, said in a statement. “The last thing we should be doing is opening up still more public land to drilling and fracking.” The Wilderness Society said the BLM should require flowback fluids to be stored in sturdier storage tanks rather than in lined ponds, which are eventually transferred to waste-water treatment facilities.

According to the BLM, the proposed rules would not stand in the way of stricter state regulations. For instance, California, home to the nation’s biggest shale oil reserves, is considering tighter rules. The bigger the reserves, it seems, the bigger the reservations about fracking’s fallout.

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