Public Misperception Complicates Discussion About Fracking Regulations, Panelists Say

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By Andrew Childers

Oct. 10 — Public confusion over the practices involved in hydraulic fracturing has complicated efforts to study and regulate aspects of the process, according to environmental and industry advocates.

“Hydraulic fracturing has evolved to mean a lot more things than fracturing open a rock,” Jason Hutt, a partner at Bracewell & Giuliani, said during a panel discussion at the American Bar Association Section of Environment, Energy and Resources fall conference in Miami Oct. 10. Bloomberg BNA was a sponsor of the conference.

Dan Grossman, regional director of the Environmental Defense Fund's Rocky Mountain Office, said the term has become a “surrogate for oil and gas development writ large,” which can complicate efforts to ensure that fracked wells are developed responsibly.

“On the environmental side, it's not helpful to say, ‘We need to ban fracking. It just can't happen,’ ” he said.

Industry and environmental groups have worked extensively, and often in collaboration, to determine whether and how best to regulate various aspects of the hydraulic fracturing process, panelists said.

Industry and environmental groups have worked together to identify and promote best practices, which are often more stringent than state regulations, through the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, Susan Packard Le Gros, the group's president and executive director, said. The group hopes to serve as a laboratory to pioneer voluntary standards that can be promulgated throughout the oil and natural gas industry or adopted by state regulators.

EPA Considering Regulation

The discussion comes as the Environmental Protection Agency considers new regulations for oil and natural gas wells at the direction of the White House. The EPA regulated hydraulically fractured wells in 2012, but that rule did not directly regulate methane emissions, a focus of concern due to climate impacts.

As part of its methane strategy, the White House has ordered the EPA to consider additional regulations, with any new methane standards to be completed by 2016 if the agency deems them necessary.

“We've seen the administration be aggressive on CO2, so it shouldn't surprise anybody they'd be aggressive on methane,” Grossman said.

Even though the EPA's rule did not directly regulate methane emissions, the pollution controls required will provide a “tremendous amount of ancillary benefits,” Hutt said.

Oil and natural gas production is the second-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, trailing only power plants, according to EPA data released Sept. 30.

Leak Repair Adds Value

The Environmental Defense Fund said in a March report that the oil and natural gas industry could reduce methane emissions from its wells by 40 percent using existing, cost-effective technologies.

“Unlike the requirement of putting a scrubber on a power plant smokestack, fixing leaks in the oil and gas chain actually adds value,” Grossman said.

The Environmental Defense Fund also helped Colorado develop the nation's first methane standard for oil and natural gas exploration. The Colorado Air Quality Control Commission approved new requirements Feb. 23 on oil and gas companies to detect and reduce methane emissions as well as to reduce releases of volatile organic compounds. The rule—the first of its kind in the nation—is designed to address ground-level ozone and reduce methane emissions that contribute to climate change. It includes new leak-detection requirements for drilling and production processes, monthly inspections of large emissions sources and a timeline for leak repairs at oil and gas facilities.

Interior Seeks Flexibility

Interior Department officials also discussed efforts to improve implementation of laws intended to protect vulnerable animal populations during the ABA conference.

Hilary Tompkins, solicitor for the Interior Department, said the department is exploring flexible measures to protect threatened species populations such as state-led agreements by Texas and New Mexico to protect the dunes sagebrush lizard. Tompkins said the success of those agreements could inform the department's efforts to protect the greater sage grouse.

“This is another example of conservation agreements on the ground leading to positive outcomes,” Tompkins said.

The Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management told Western governors Oct. 9 that state input is vital to efforts to protect the greater sage grouse.

The Interior Department has also tried to revise its implementation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, W. Michael Young, assistant solicitor for fish and wildlife in the Interior Department's Parks and Wildlife Division, said. In 2013 the department issued a rule allowing wind farm operators to receive permits to kill or otherwise harm eagles for up to 30 years if measures are adopted to minimize the harm.

The Interior Department previously updated its regulations in 2009, but only one permit had been issued since then, Young said.

“It's not easy to develop these measures,” he said.

The American Bird Conservancy has filed a lawsuit challenging the rule.

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To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at