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August 22, 2013

Protect Public Lands from Reckless Fracking? Yes We Can!

One of the worst consequences of President Obama's reckless "all of the above" energy policy is the blight of oil and gas rigs that has spread across our public lands -- often right next to national parks and wilderness areas. Based on my own family's camping trip this summer, I can testify that the sight of natural gas flares in the night sky adds nothing to the wilderness experience.

What's more, most of this new drilling is hydraulic fracturing (fracking), which is so dangerous, destructive, and polluting that there's no reason why any additional public lands should be leased to drillers. Air-polluting gas flares are bad enough -- running the risk of contaminating the water table of a national park is unthinkable.

"All of the above" also ignores the fact that, if we want to limit climate disruption from fossil fuels, we need a policy that leaves most of them below the ground.  

Nevertheless, all summer long the Bureau of Land Management has been accepting public comments on a proposed update of federal regulations for oil and gas fracking on the public lands it manages. Presumably that's an attempt to honor a pledge President Obama made in his 2012 State of the Union address -- that America would develop resources like natural gas "without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk."

Given the effect on our climate of extracting and burning all of that natural gas, and that fracking is the primary way it will happen, the president has set an impossible goal. Yet the proposed new regulations manage to fail even to adequately address the risks of the fracking that is already occurring on leased public lands.

There are at least seven serious flaws with the current proposed rules:

1. Although the draft rules require partial disclosure of chemicals used after fracking occurs, they should require full public disclosure of all chemicals to be used before fracking starts. The industry should not be allowed to hide behind claims of "trade secrets" to exempt some chemicals from disclosure. Other statutes, such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, recognize this principle and specifically reject claims of trade secrecy in reports of discharges. Why should fracking get an exemption?

2. As has already begun to happen in states, we need to move away from the practice of storing toxic fracking waste in open-air pits. Ultimately, it should be abolished altogether. Instead, the draft rules propose to continue this outdated and dangerous practice. If states like New Mexico and Colorado are putting tight restrictions on open-air pits, shouldn't we do at least the same for lands held in the public trust?

3. The draft fails to update currently outdated well-construction rules. This is critical if we're to avoid water contamination. In fact, the BLM's current draft is even weaker in this respect than the one it circulated last year. For example, it allows the industry to test only a few wells, rather than confirm that every individual well meets construction standards.

4. The draft doesn't require baseline water testing before fracking is approved. This is essential to help protect drinking water. It is the best way to determine whether water has been contaminated by fracking.

5. The draft completely fails to address the air pollution from oil and gas drilling. Methane emissions from natural gas wells are just one of the serious problems this ignores.

6. The draft doesn't establish safe setbacks from homes, schools, and sensitive environmental features. Public lands are often very close to communities. More than 1,400 public schools across six western states are within one mile of federal oil and gas resources.

7. The draft would continue to allow the use of diesel in fracking fluids. Even the Obama administration's own advisory committee on fracking unequivocally said that was a bad idea.

All of the problems listed above should be addressed for public land leases that have already happened. But let's be clear: In the case of federal lands that haven't already been leased, the BLM should allow no new fracking at all. And sensitive and unique areas (like those adjacent to national parks) should be placed off-limits to oil and gas fracking whether they've been leased or not.

Already, hundreds of thousands of people have let the BLM know that these draft rules fail to properly protect our public lands from the oil and gas industries. Time's running out, though -- the comment period closes after August 23. Let the BLM know where you stand.

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