Time for BLM to Switch Paths on Road to Fracked Oil and Gas
Briana Mordick, Staff Scientist, San Francisco
The Bureau of Land Management is at a fork in the road to America’s public lands. One path offers outdated, inadequate rules – the path that the agency has been following to regulate oil and gas drilling for more than three decades. The BLM itself has said its current rules don’t address the real environmental and public health risks from technologies like hydraulic fracturing. Down the other path are requirements for oil and gas producers to use today’s best available practices to protect America’s clean air, clean water, wildlands, and human health – leading toward a future where oil and gas resources are more responsibly developed in ways that reduce threats to public health and the environment and that respect the quality of life in local communities.
Unfortunately, the revised proposed rules the BLM released in May of this year indicate that the BLM plans to continue down the same risky, well-trod path to oil and gas development on public lands it has been walking for the past 30 years. Fortunately, it’s not too late for the BLM to change course and start to protect the millions of Americans who live, go to school, work, and recreate on or near public lands.
Later this week, NRDC and a coalition of other environmental groups will be submitting comments calling on the BLM to significantly improve its proposed rules to regulate hydraulic fracturing on public land. These proposed rules are not only weak, they are dangerous. Some are based on concepts that lack scientific and technical merit, as discussed below.
Well Stimulation vs. Hydraulic Fracturing
The revised proposed rules would only apply to hydraulic fracturing instead of all forms of well stimulation. However, hydraulic fracturing is only one of the two primary well stimulation techniques used by the oil and gas industry today, the other being what is known as acidizing or acid stimulation. It has been estimated that more than 40,000 acid stimulation treatments are performed in oil and gas wells every year.
Multiple different types of acid are used in acid stimulation, including hydrochloric acid and hydrofluoric acid. Hydrofluoric acid in particular is extremely toxic and exposure to it can be life threatening. In addition to acid, many other potentially toxic chemicals are used in acid stimulation fluids, including some of the exact same products used in hydraulic fracturing fluids.  Like with hydraulic fracturing, these chemicals must be disclosed in order to properly manage the associated environmental and public health risks.
The acids used in acidizing treatments are corrosive and present a risk to well integrity. Just like with hydraulic fracturing, mechanical integrity must be established and maintained before, during, and after acid stimulation. The spent acid that returns to the surface after acidizing poses similar environmental risks as produced water and hydraulic fracturing flowback and must also be properly handled, transported, and disposed of.
Acidizing presents many of the same environmental and public health risks as hydraulic fracturing and should be regulated similarly. That is why the BLM’s first draft of rules, issued last year, rightly would have covered both. The new draft, issued this year, would not apply to acidizing. The BLM should reverse this mistake and ensure any final rule applies to acidizing and other forms of well stimulation.
Another major flaw in the revised proposed rules is the BLM’s new “type well” approach. This approach would allow operators to run a cement evaluation log (CEL) – an important way to verify well integrity and ensure groundwater is protected – on only certain wells in a field. The BLM proposal would also allow operators to submit a single permit application for a group of wells, excusing them from submitting unique information that pertains to the risks of hydraulic fracturing for each well. This approach is based on the BLM’s false assumption that wells that are drilled through the same rocks will behave the same way. There is no scientific basis for this assumption.
To the contrary, geology can vary significantly over very short distances. These geologic variations necessitate differences in well stimulation design and operation. As such, all the information submitted in a stimulation permit application should be unique to the well for which a permit is being sought. However under this proposed rule, operators would be allowed to submit generic information about important well characteristics, such as the depth to drinking water and the hydraulic fracturing design. This means that BLM regulators could be making decisions to issue permits without critical information about drilling and fracturing operations, and therefore without a complete understanding of the environmental and public health risks.
Cement and casing failures are recognized as one of the most likely ways by which contaminants may reach groundwater. CELs are an important tool for reducing these failures because they help operators and regulators determine whether the cement is properly bonded to the casing, and therefore whether all fluids are properly isolated. However, under the proposed “type well” rules, the BLM would allow a CEL from one well to be used as a proxy for multiple wells. This approach is dangerously flawed because CELs from a single well provide no information about the cement integrity of a completely different well. Furthermore, the proposed rules would allow CELs to be submitted *after* hydraulic fracturing is performed. If drinking water isn’t properly protected, the well needs to be fixed before stimulation. However, under the proposed rules, BLM regulators may not know if there’s a problem until after stimulation has happened – or they may not know at all, if the results submitted are for a different well.
As my colleagues Amy Mall and Matt McFeeley describe further, these are only a few examples of how the BLM’s proposed rules fail to protect public health and our shared natural resources from the risks associated with oil and gas production. In testimony before the House Natural Resources Committee, Interior Secretary Jewell discussed the revised proposed rule on hydraulic fracturing and stated, “…it is important that the public have full confidence that the right safety and environmental protections are in place.” Unfortunately these rules fall far short of that goal. But it’s not too late for the BLM to choose the other path – a path that truly puts the right protections in place and helps fulfill the BLM’s responsibility to protect the public lands that belong to each and every one of us.
 Economides, M.J.; Nolte, K.G. (Eds.), Reservoir Stimulation, 3rd ed., Wiley: New York, 2000.
 The BLM is an agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior
After getting my Masters, I went to work for the oil and gas industry as a petroleum geologist for almost six years. Now, as a Science Fellow for NRDC, I focus on solutions to the environmental impacts of oil and gas extraction, the potential for carbon capture and geologic sequestration to help curb global warming, and work to bridge the gaps between science and policy.
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