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Hope and Empty Promises, Proposed BLM Fracking Rule Falls Short of Expectations

Tweeti & Linn on Bench above ranch hdqtrsTweeti Blancett and her husband Linn on the bench above ranch headquarters

Just a few weeks ago, the public comment period closed for the latest draft of the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) rule for “Oil and Gas; Hydraulic Fracturing on Federal and Indian Lands." The rule will regulate fracking on over 750 million of acres of public land (including national forests, wildlife refuges, and BLM managed public wildlands and habitats), Tribal and even private lands. 

Sadly, the proposed rule fails to take even the most obvious and critical steps necessary to better safeguard landscapes and communities. Concerned people across the country submitted more than 1 million comments demanding an end to new fracking and real safeguards to reduce impacts on our land, air, water, wildlife and public health where fracking has already occurred. They urged the Administration to keep natural gas in the ground and put its full focus on renewable sources of energy, including wind and solar.

When the fracking rule was first proposed, many people had high hopes it would finally provide stronger protection from the dirty and dangerous oil and gas drilling affecting their states and communities.  Among those people initially excited about the new rule’s prospects was Tweeti Blancett, a rancher from Aztec, New Mexico who has seen the majority of her cattle ranch, which had been in the family for over 100 years, scarred and polluted by oil and gas drilling.  Tweeti’s ranch was so heavily damaged and contaminated by drilling and fracking that she finally agreed to sell her land to Conoco Phillips in 2010.

Despite the hardships oil and gas drilling has caused her, Tweeti takes pains to note that she is not, by definition, against the oil and gas industry. “Don’t get me wrong, my son works for an oil and gas company.”  Instead, she had hoped that the new BLM fracking rule would actually fulfill its role of regulating the industry and include the stringent environmental safety requirements that she and many others so desperately needed.

Nevertheless, the draft rule failed to provide the rigorous requirements that would protect Tweeti and others from the harmful impacts of ongoing drilling. For example, the draft rule would still allow the use of open waste pits to store toxic liquid wastes from fracking. It was leaks from lined pits near Tweeti’s ranch that contaminated soil and poisoned her cattle.  As Tweeti describes, “Most of the leaked chemicals were like anti-freeze, which is deadly stuff. The cattle would lick the contaminated water and either die or abort their calves. And you know if you’re losing cattle, then you’re also losing wildlife too because they drink from the same sources.”

Tweeti’s case proves that even requiring that open pits be lined, one of the few safety measures that was included in the proposed rule, fails to prevent leaks.  Instead, BLM should, as many states are doing, move away from allowing the use of open pits and toward a mandate for closed-loop systems which recover waste fluids for storage in closed tanks.

Although fracking will never be safe, the BLM rule is a critical opportunity for imposing strict regulations that will better protect people, communities and landscapes where fracking is already occurring.  However, the current draft rule falls far short and fails to even employ the recommendations of the Administration’s own shale gas advisory committee, which advocated for greater industry transparency, more complete chemical disclosure, greater environmental safeguards, and effective pollution monitoring for fracking.

At a minimum, the BLM should require drillers to fully disclose the chemicals they use, before fracking occurs, and with no exemptions for so-called “trade secrets.”  Rigorous baseline testing of water quality before drilling happens should likewise be mandated. And other commonsense requirements, such as banning the use of diesel fuel as a fracking fluid; keeping drilling away from homes, communities and sensitive natural areas; and requiring the capture of methane, must be in place to provide the basic health protections we deserve (Read Michael Brune’s blog article for more details about what’s missing from the proposed BLM rule).

Americans are depending on President Obama to deliver on his 2012 State of the Union promise that America would develop resources like natural gas “without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk.”  Tweeti’s story – and the comments of over 1 million others - should send a strong message to President Obama and Secretary Jewell that the BLM rule is deeply flawed and that dirty and destructive drilling and fracking does not belong in our national climate plan, on our public lands, or next to our communities.   

-- by Jenny Bock

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