SALT LAKE CITY — The worst-case scenarios are all dire.
Either the environment could be horribly ruined and water supplies tainted, or the oil and gas industry might be completely chased off federal lands if the federal government is too lax — or too stringent — when it comes regulating hydraulic fracturing of oil and gas wells.
Utah's environmental watchdogs, conservative politicians and independent oil and gas producers are all panning the Bureau of Land Management's proposed regulations of hydraulic fracturing.
Of course, they hate it for different reasons.
For environmental groups and conservation organizations, the BLM's proposed rule falls short.
“The public should be excited that a federal agency like the BLM is finally taking on the issue in a proactive way,” said Tim Wagner, public lands representative for the Sierra Club’s Our Wild America Campaign. ”Unfortunately, it appears that the BLM is catering more to industry rather than putting in place some sorely needed restrictions to protect the public, our water and our wild places.”
The deadline to make comment on the proposed rule ends Friday, and groups from all corners are taking the opportunity to publicly weigh in.
"We disagree with the philosophy of the rule in the first place because states have been enormously successful in regulating oil and gas production on federal lands," said Julia Bell, spokeswoman with the Independent Petroleum Association of America. "They know the geography and conditions of their own states, while the federal government doesn't have the expertise or the resources to do this."
For conservative politicians and the oil and gas industry, the new rule would be costly and unnecessary given oversight that is already in place.
Earlier this week, Wyoming's congressional delegation wrote Interior Secretary Sally Jewell asking that Wyoming, Utah and other states that have their own hydraulic fracturing rules in place be exempt from any final rule the federal government adopts.
Last fall, Utah adopted its own set of regulations requiring companies to report the amount and type of chemicals they use at www.fracfocus.org when they hydraulically fracture any Utah oil or gas well.
FracFocus is managed by the Ground Water Protection Council and Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy. Wyoming, Colorado, Louisiana, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Texas all use the website as a means of meeting a state disclosure requirement.
Last year, when the early version of the draft rule was released, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert and the state's congressional delegation all said any federal regulatory oversight would duplicate what is already happening on the ground.
Herbert, in particular, called it a "political solution in search of a nonexistent problem" and added that there is "positively no need," for the federal government to insert itself in the process.
Hydraulic fracturing is not new. The first well was fractured back in 1947, and by 2012, more than a million wells had been fractured in the United States alone. The process involves the high-pressure injection of water and chemicals into existing underground fractures, which opens up larger pathways from which to tap the oil and gas. It is commonly used in directional drilling.
While credited with stimulating domestic oil and gas production, the process over the past several years has drawn the ire of conservation groups and environmentalists who allege groundwater contamination and other environmental degradation results.
Dr. Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, said there are too many unknowns that rest with the practice.6 comments on this story
"Despite industry claims, no one can safely predict the long-term effects of pumping hundreds of millions of gallons (of) chemicals and contaminated water into the ground and where those chemicals may end up," Moench said.
The BLM said approximately 90 percent of wells drilled on federal and Native American lands use hydraulic fracturing, but the agency's current regulations governing hydraulic fracturing operations have not been updated since 1983 and don't reflect modern activities.