Fracking on Public Lands

Amy Mall, Senior Policy Analyst, Washington, D.C.

Last week we got one of our first glimpses into what U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell thinks about fracking – and it wasn’t promising. Her viewpoint on this topic is important because she is overseeing the development of new rules for the controversial oil and gas extraction process for public lands. Unfortunately, she essentially called it safe, saying: "I think that there's a lot of misinformation about fracking. I think that it's part of the industry's job to make sure that the public understands what it is, how it's done, and why it’s safe.”

While the Interior Department has made tremendous strides in the last few years in adopting new tools to help develop renewable energy on federal lands in a more environmentally sustainable manner, it has not been as responsible in its approach to oil and gas development. We need Secretary Jewell to break that pattern – not to gloss over the very real threats that fracking poses to public health and the environment.  

So far, the agency has been headed in the wrong direction. The latest proposed rules (issued by the Bureau of Land Management, which is housed in the Interior Department) are much too weak to protect communities, public lands and wildlife habitat, and drinking water sources from the risks of fracking. Among other things, they would allow fracking companies to decide what chemicals to keep secret, allow waste to be stored in risky open air pits that can leak toxic contaminants, and wouldn’t require enough information from frackers to ensure that drinking water sources are protected before fracking begins.

That’s why we’re urging the administration to immediately place a moratorium on fracking on public lands. A moratorium is essential to protect communities, drinking water sources, and our natural resources from the uncontrolled fracking dangers of polluted air, toxic waste, contaminated water, and more. Many people may not realize that what happens on federal lands not only impacts some of America’s most treasured landscapes and wild places–like lands near Grand Teton and Glacier National Parks—but the health and safety of millions of Americans nationwide. Public lands are home to drinking water sources for millions, from large municipal supplies like those for Washington, D.C. and Denver, to private wells in situations where the government owns the rights to minerals below a homeowner’s property. In total, these rules impact an area of land more than seven times the size of California.

More details on what’s at stake unless the administration places a moratorium on fracking on public lands:

  • Neighboring Communities: Communities like the North Fork Valley in Colorado; Aztec, New Mexico; and New Cuyama, California are surrounded by public lands and extensive oil and gas development.

The North Fork Valley includes federal lands in the midst of Colorado’s highest concentration of organic and sustainable farms. Industry wants to frack in an area that includes all of this agricultural community’s water sources. New Cuyama, California, a small farming community that relies primarily on wells for water, is close to oil wells in the Los Padres National Forest. Aztec, New Mexico, is ringed by natural gas wells, and residents have reported concerns about health symptoms related to air pollution.

  • Community drinking water sources: Communities across the country rely on public lands as their source of clean drinking water.

In New Mexico, oil and gas development including fracking has been proposed on land adjacent to the Navajo Reservoir, which is a crucial source of water for drinking and irrigation in this arid region and is also a popular site for camping, boating, and fishing. Fillmore, California is immediately downstream of the Sespe Oil Field in the Los Padres National Forest. In Colorado, fracking has been proposed in the South Park area, where three reservoirs in the area provide water to Denver and 15 other nearby cities, as well as world class fishing and wildlife opportunities. In Virginia, industry wants to frack in the George Washington National Forest, home to the headwaters of the Potomac and James Rivers. The waters in this forest feed the drinking water supplies for approximately four million people, including all of Washington, D.C., northern Virginia, and Richmond, and more than 260,000 residents of the Shenandoah Valley.

  • Private homes and water wells: Many Americans are in so-called “split-estate” situations, where the federal government owns the rights to the minerals below the surface of private property.

In this situation, the oil and gas rights take precedence over the surface owner's rights, meaning that drilling and fracking can occur right in someone's backyard, or on their ranch, without the landowner’s consent—and generally without any financial benefit to them. The BLM currently allows fracking on split estate lands in residential and agricultural areas, as well as on public wildlands.

In total, 55-60 million acres in the United States are split estate where federally-owned mineral rights lie beneath private surface. Most of this split estate land is in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, and North Dakota.

For an example of just how problematic this can be -- in Pavillion, Wyoming, where there is split estate oil and gas development, U.S. EPA water testing in 2009 identified contamination in 11 water wells, including methane, toxic chemicals that are found in drilling and fracking fluids, and volatile organic compounds. In 2011, EPA concluded that "the data indicates likely impact to ground water that can be explained by hydraulic fracturing." Unfortunately EPA dropped its investigation, but the State of Wyoming says it will follow up. In North Dakota, ranches above federal minerals, near national grasslands, have also reported wastewater spills and other harms.

  • Our national heritage: Public lands are home to some of the country's last wild places – and magnificent (sometimes threatened) wildlife. Take for example, Colorado’s White River National Forest in the heart of the Rockies -- home to Canada lynx, bighorn sheep and the biggest elk herd in the world. Or California’s Los Padres National Forest, a beach-to-mountaintop wildland that spans five counties, boasts 300 miles of rugged Big Sur hiking trails and gives refuge to more than 400 wildlife species, including the California condor. Also in peril: New Mexico’s Otero Mesa, one of the largest wild desert grasslands left in America . . . whole swaths of Monterey County in central California . . . and the Little Missouri National Grasslands in North Dakota, which surround Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

For months, NRDC has tried to work with the BLM to strengthen its rules. But these enormous gaps in safety remain. That’s why we’re urging the administration to put a fracking moratorium in place on all public lands to safeguard our natural heritage, protect clean drinking water for millions and shield communities across the country.

Rather than continuing to look to fossil fuels, the agency should be scaling up clean, renewable energy development. By boosting wind and solar energy on our public lands--in a way that’s sensitive to the surrounding environment--we can help keep the air and water clean on our nation’s federal land and combat threats from a changing climate. That’s the direction our entire country must be moving.

You can send your own message urging the Obama administration to protect our public lands from fracking and move our nation beyond all fossil fuels by clicking on this link.

Photo Credit: Fracking and Public Lands/shutterstock