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US wants 'fracking' on federal lands to disclose chemicals

Les Stone / Reuters

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has spread across the country, both on public and private lands. This well in rural Bradford County, Pa., is flaring natural gas that could not be captured by the well flow.

Setting up another battleground with the energy industry — as well as Republicans ahead of the presidential election — the Obama administration on Friday proposed requiring that drillers on federal lands publicly list what chemicals they use in a technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

"This administration’s energy strategy is an all-out effort to boost American production of every available source of energy," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement. "As we continue to offer millions of acres of America’s public lands for oil and gas development, it is critical that the public have full confidence that the right safety and environmental protections are in place."

The process has led to a boom in new natural gas resources, but has been controversial because it injects water, sand and chemicals deep underground to extract the gas from rock formations. Environmentalists, backed by some homeowners in areas being drilled, fear those chemicals will poison underground water sources.

Industry groups pounced on the proposal as more federal bureaucracy when the issue should be dealt with by states.

"The states have proven time and time again that they are best," Marty Durbin, executive vice president at the American Petroleum Institute, told msnbc.com.

"We can't have a cookie-cutter approach" given the differing geology among states, he added. "North Dakota is much different than Colorado, which is much different than Pennsylvania."

Echoing a statement posted by the group online, Durbin also noted that some 250 companies running 15,000 wells on private and public lands are already disclosing those chemicals voluntarily via a public website, fracfocus.org.

The proposal, which next goes through a public comment period, would require that drillers:

  • Disclose the "complete chemical makeup of all materials used;" 
  • Ensure the stability of underground casing in wells;
  • Ensure that waste water from fracking does not leak into the environment. 

Environmental groups welcomed the proposal's mandatory requirement for disclosure but want even tougher wording.

"While it is deeply disappointing that fracking on sensitive public lands has been considered at all," Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement, "we fully expect the administration to implement the toughest safeguards possible to rein in irresponsible practices and protect our public spaces. We look forward to working closely with the administration to ensure that happens."

The Natural Resources Defense Council called it a "critical first step" but policy analyst Amy Mall noted that disclosure would only be required after fracking takes place. It also wants "much higher standards" for well construction and that the injection fluid now stored in open-air pits be stored in enclosed tanks, Mall told msnbc.com. 

In a conference call with reporters, Salazar said the disclosure after drilling, not before, was deliberate. "Requiring the information before the fracking occurred would have caused, in our view, delays that were not necessary," he said. 

Hundreds of chemicals and other additives are used in the process, and House Democrats last year reported they included "29 chemicals that are: (1) known or possible human carcinogens; (2) regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act for their risks to human health; or (3) listed as hazardous air pollutants under the Clean Air Act."

Mladen Antonov / AFP - Getty Images

A fracking fluid pit sits next to a drill site near Waynesburg, Pa. on April 13.

The Environmental Protection Agency, for its part, is studying whether to issue its own fracking rules related to groundwater. Last year, a draft EPA study found that fracking fluids likely polluted an aquifer that supplies public drinking water in Pavillion, Wyo.

Moreover, the EPA last month issued a rule to phase-in technology to reduce air emissions from fracking sites.

Fracking has also come under scrutiny as possibly causing very small earthquakes. The U.S. Geological Survey is studying that possible connection.

The energy industry has had strong support from Republican lawmakers, who share their view that federal bureaucracy is slowing down production. The issue has also become a presidential campaign issue, with President Barack Obama defending his policies from attacks by Republican Mitt Romney.

Fracking is used on about 90 percent of wells drilled on federal lands, the Bureau of Land Management estimates, and about 14 percent of all natural gas production in the U.S. is on federal lands.

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