Anyone in the Obama administration who thought tougher hydraulic fracturing regulations would score points with the green movement was in for a rude awakening.
The Interior Department’s announcement Friday of its final rules met with a chilly reception from fracking foes, whose leaders made it clear that they would settle for nothing short of banning hydraulic fracturing on federal land.
The tone was set by Americans Against Fracking, a coalition of 250 environmental and liberal groups that includes Greenpeace, MoveOn.org and Food & Water Watch, which dismissed the regulations in a statement as “toothless.”
“[I]nstead of following the lead of New York in banning fracking, the Obama administration has devised fracking regulations that are nothing more than a giveaway to the oil and gas industry,” actor Mark Ruffalo, a member of the AAF advisory board, said in a statement. “These regulations take from us our heritage and hands it to an industry that doesn’t need a handout. Industrialization and parks don’t belong together.”
Even leaders of the environmental behemoth Sierra Club were less than thrilled with the administration. Dan Chu, senior director for the group’s Our Wild America campaign, acknowledged that the regulations would “reduce the harm caused by fracking,” but “the only true way to protect communities from fracking is not to frack at all.”
The Interior Department rules will affect only wells operating on federal and Indian lands, about one-tenth of all gas drilling and 5 percent of oil drilling in the country. But with pro-fracking states such as Pennsylvania, North Dakota and Texas setting up a patchwork of rules and regulations, many see the federal land guidelines as a potential baseline for national standards down the road.
The harsh reaction from green groups underscores the challenge for Democrats as they try to keep up with the demands of the influential environmental lobby, a critical voting bloc that has increasingly staked out a zero-sum stance on fracking, without winding up at loggerheads with the powerful oil and gas industry or with states with Democratic governors where fracking is thriving.
It’s a balancing act that ultimately proved unworkable for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who gave in to calls for a statewide ban on hydraulic fracturing in December, a month after his re-election. The Democrat has since taken a pounding from industry groups, not to mention upstate New Yorkers whose economically depressed communities sit atop the rich Marcellus Shale.
Still juggling the issue is Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. The Democrat is a former geologist and fracking supporter who has orchestrated a series of regulatory moves aimed at placating the anti-fracking movement without choking off the state’s oil and gas boom.
Mr. Hickenlooper often declares that Colorado has the toughest fracking rules in the nation, but that hasn’t satisfied “fractivists.” Case in point: Last month, a task force formed in August by Mr. Hickenlooper issued a set of recommendations designed to give communities more input in drilling operations and efforts to mitigate the side effects of fracking.
The next day, activists launched Coloradans Against Fracking, blasting the task force’s work as inadequate and calling on the governor to issue an executive order banning fracking statewide. At least one statewide anti-fracking ballot measure is already in the works for the November 2016 ballot.
Democrats were largely silent Friday on the Bureau of Land Management’s tougher standards, which require companies operating on federal land to disclose chemicals in fracking fluid on the FracFocus.org website and hew to higher standards on well integrity and waste disposal.
Among those who did comment publicly was Rep. Raul M. Grijalva, Arizona Democrat and leader of the minority delegation on the House Natural Resources Committee. He criticized the rules as “half-measures” and called on the House to pass tougher restrictions.
“We could have avoided years of uncertainty and environmental risk by setting a strong, clear, consistent standard before the fracking boom took off,” Mr. Grijalva said in a statement. “Now, at this late date, instead of offering clarity and protecting our resources, today’s rule lets industry off the hook. Rather than raising the bar, the Bureau settled for the lowest common denominator.”
Indeed, the regulations were cheered mainly by those with a stake in supporting the White House. They included the Center for American Progress, chaired by John Podesta, a former adviser to President Obama, as well as the more business-friendly Environmental Defense Fund.
The League of Conservation Voters offered a lukewarm endorsement. Legislative representative Madeline Foote called the rules “an important step forward” but bemoaned “the lack of a ban on fracking in our most treasured spaces.”
In another sign of the administration’s political dilemma, fracking proponents immediately attacked the rules as far too harsh and restrictive and yet another sign of Mr. Obama’s willingness to go beyond his executive powers.
Republicans on Capitol Hill were uniformly furious. They accused the Obama administration of enacting another layer of economy-crippling regulations on a process that has been regulated for decades by state agencies. The rules apply to the 750 million acres overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, meaning only the West will be affected.
House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob Bishop, Utah Republican, called the rules “duplicative and nonsensical.”
He said the BLM “severely underestimates the added costs and delays.” The administration, using the Energy Information Administration’s average cost per well of $5.4 million, has estimated the cost at less than one-fourth of 1 percent of the cost of drilling a well.
“The Western states, where federal lands are found, will bear the brunt of this anti-economic development rule, which is costumed as environmental protection,” Mr. Bishop said in a statement. “My kids, who are still in school, and my neighbors’ kids will be the victims as they will have fewer and more expensive education opportunities, thanks to diminished revenue for education. The administration is once again clandestinely picking winners and losers, and this rule is aimed squarely at the West.”
Two industry groups, the Independent Petroleum Association of America and Western Energy Alliance, promptly filed a lawsuit calling the heightened standards unnecessary and “another regulatory overreach by the Obama administration.”
• Valerie Richardson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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