Weak Rule by Jewell: New Interior Secretary’s Proposal Fails to Protect America’s Natural Heritage from Fracking

Environment America

Washington, D.C. — Today, as one of the first major policy decisions for new Secretary of Interior Sally Jewell, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) proposed scant protections for America’s natural heritage with its revised rules for hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” The move comes even as the oil and gas industry is seeking to expand drilling near treasured places and drinking water sources for millions of Americans.

“Today we were counting on Secretary Jewell to protect our natural heritage and environment from dirty drilling. She didn’t do it,” said John Rumpler, senior attorney for Environment America.

Across the country, fracking has wrought widespread environmental damage — contaminating drinking water sources and turning treasured landscapes into industrial zones. And now, the oil and gas industry has designs on key areas of America’s natural heritage, including sources of drinking water for millions of Americans:

  • White River National Forest – Located in Colorado, White River is the most visited national forest in the nation. Its pristine streams also provide drinking water to nearby communities, and feeds the Colorado River.
  • Delaware River basin – The basin spans New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Delaware, is home to three national park areas, and provides drinking water to 15 million people.
  • Wayne National Forest – Part of the beautiful Hocking Hills region in Ohio, most of the acres in the forest are to be leased for drilling near the sole drinking water source for 70,000 people.
  • George Washington National Forest – this area hosts streams in Virginia and West Virginia that feed the James and Potomac Rivers, which provide the drinking water for millions of people in the metro D.C. area.
  • Otero Mesa – A vital part of New Mexico’s natural heritage, Otero Mesa is home to wildlife and what is perhaps the largest untapped freshwater aquifer in this parched Southwestern state.

In fall 2011, the Obama administration’s science advisory panel on fracking recommended the “[p]reservation of unique and/or sensitive areas as off limits to drilling.” Environment America highlighted this recommendation in its comments on the original BLM rule proposed last year. Yet the BLM’s proposal today does nothing to implement this core principle.

“I at least expected the Interior Secretary to heed the administration’s own modest conclusions on fracking,” said Rumpler.

Last year, tens of thousands of Americans submitted comments urging the administration to adopt a much stronger rule to curb damage from dirty drilling in or around our forest, parks, and other treasured lands. Yet, the fracking rule proposed today is very limited and its provisions are exceedingly weak:

  • Toxic chemicals – Instead of barring the use of toxic chemicals (including diesel), the BLM’s rule merely proposes disclosure of such chemicals, in a scheme even weaker than originally proposed last year.
  • Well construction – The proposed rule falls short of even the American Petroleum Institute’s own standards for fracked wells.
  • Wastewater – The rule has drillers submit management plans, but fails to ban waste pits.

Fracking generates millions of gallons of toxic wastewater laced with benzene, caustic salts and even radioactive material. Waste pits have contaminated groundwater at more than 400 sites in New Mexico alone.

In light of such drilling damage, public concern about fracking is on the rise. Just three weeks ago in Pennsylvania, more than 100,000 people called for a moratorium on drilling, on a petition spearheaded by PennEnvironment.

“Fracking is posing a staggering array of threats to our health and environment — especially to our drinking water,” Rumpler concluded. “If Secretary Jewell is not willing to confront these threats, then we urge President Obama to step in and protect our natural heritage — and our drinking water — from dirty drilling.”