What’s All the Fuss over Federal Fracking Rules?

While it’s technically not a new industry, hydraulic fracturing has become far more prevalent in the U.S. in the past decade – engendering much controversy even as it opens up reserves of natural gas and oil, once thought too inaccessible to bother with for commercial extraction. New rules issued in May by the federal government, meant to clarify and direct the management of hydrofracking (as the process is often known) on public lands, have prompted some criticism from both sides of the issue.

Fracking Background

Hydraulic fracturing uses fluid – a water mixture that also includes sand and particular chemicals – to penetrate fractures in subterranean strata to flush out fossil fuels. In development for better then a half-century, the technology has become increasingly refined: acute enough to allow oil and natural-gas extractors to successfully penetrate and harvest from so-called “unconventional” sources of fossil fuel – for example, beds of shale with tiny, tight gas-bearing pores.

hydraulic-fracturingEven as proponents argue the process gives the U.S. a huge, newly accessible stock of domestic energy to lower consumer bills and decrease dependence on foreign imports, environmentalists worry that fracking may promote all kinds of ecological problems – from temblors spurred by the injection of fracking wastewater into underground strata to contamination of groundwater by well leakages.

New Rules

The Obama administration’s latest directives concerning hydrofracking on public lands angered and distressed some environmental organizations because they do not require full disclosure of the particular formulations companies use to produce the fluid employed in the procedure. The chemicals are primarily utilized to improve the viscosity of the injected fluid.

Critics of fracking argue it’s essential to know what exactly is mixed into the fluid, given the possibility that the liquid might leak into groundwater or surface-water systems at any number of compromised points in the infrastructure network – from wellbores to tanks containing the “flowback” wastewater. (The flowback, which may be contaminated not only with chemicals but also radioactive materials from deep underground, is sometimes recycled for future fracking use or is pumped into deep storage reservoirs.)

The hydrofracking industry, meanwhile, claims that disclosure of the exact formulations of fracking fluid would reveal trade secrets and thus disrupt business competition.

As noted by Meg Handley in a May 17 US News and World Report article, the updated federal approach requires fracking operators to share ingredients on a website (FracFocus), but only those they don’t consider proprietary. An exception would be cases in which the Bureau of Land Management, which administers most of the federal acreage in question, requests the full details when fracking operations are actively being contested.

The oil and gas industry wasn’t necessarily bowled over by the changes either. Much of the concern stemmed from the added layer of regulation; operators claim that state rules are more effective and more dynamic, and that federal requirements could be redundant as well as costly and time-consuming to implement.

Given the enormous expansion of unconventional energy extraction and increasing concern over the potential for real environmental and human-health issues connected with those efforts, the controversy over hydrofracking isn’t likely to dissipate anytime soon. For an issue tied to everything from global warming to the war on terror, that isn’t altogether surprising.