In March, the Bureau for Land Management unveiled new rules for fracking on federal lands. Of course, only a fraction of the nation's of fracking wells are on federal lands (about 5% according to Reuters). For the rest, regulation is patchwork of mismatched state rules.
Hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking", is the process of harvesting oil or natural gas by drilling deep into underground shale formations and breaking up the rock with a high-pressure injection of water, abrasives and chemicals. Fracking was once in just a handful of states, but it's now common coast to coast. In California, the practice was initially limited to Kern County but now stretches all over the Central Valley and around Los Angeles.
Yet, there are still broad swaths of the country that haven't experienced fracking or created regulation for it. New England, parts of the upper Midwest, some of the south and the Pacific Northwest all have little or no fracking activity. Most of those states don't have regulations in place, either. If fracking does, eventually, come to those states, they may have to deal with significant industry pressure when crafting their rules. Only Washington state seems to be ahead of the game here.
The map, made by Chemical and Engineering News, helpfully focuses on "disclosure" regulation--the process by which fracking companies publicly reveal the details of individual injection wells. Disclosure rules have become the main regulatory battleground for states.
For people who live near fracking activity, the worry is that the chemicals, which are pumped deep into the ground, will leak into groundwater tables, contaminating supplies that might be used for drinking or agriculture. They want to know when drilling is taking place and exactly what's being pumped into the ground.
The worry is well-documented. Last fall, The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit showed that California oil and gas companies had pumped nearly three billion gallons of waste water into clean aquifers that might have been used for water or agriculture. By February of this year, it was revealed that a total of 532 wells may have dumped wastewater into clean aquifers. We mapped those wells here:
Although disclosure laws are widespread, they're kind of a mess. In a lot of states, regulators can opt out of some disclosure rules by claiming that their particular mix of chemicals is a "trade secret." Matthew McFeely, an attorney with the National Resources Defense Council told Chemical and Engineering News, "Opting out of disclosure can be as simple as marking a checkbox or writing “trade secret” on a form."
Fracking companies say they spend years and millions of dollars developing fracking fluids. Disclosure can give their competitors access to valuable intellectual property. The petroleum-industry-backed blog Energy In Depth says that over 99% of fracking fluid is regular water. "Only a small fraction is made up of chemicals," it says, "many of which are the same household materials that can be found under the kitchen sink."
The fracking industry tends to prefer state regulation over federal. On its website, the Western Energy Alliance writes, "States have successfully regulated more than 1.2 million fracking operations spanning 60 years; new federal mandates are not necessary given their exemplary safety record." The Alliance casts the diversity in state regulations as an advantage: "State rules specifically tailored to each state’s unique geologic and hydrologic conditions better protect the environment and groundwater than a one-size-fits-all federal rule," writes the Wesern Energy Alliance.
Thanks to SB4, the state fracking law that went into effect last year, California has some of the toughest fracking regulations in the country. "Each and every" chemical used in drilling has to be posted to the internet, trade secret or no.
The big issue that California needs to deal with now is enforcement of this and other laws. The hundreds of wells that were dumping into clean aquifers were all approved by state regulators. In a statement to the Investigative Unit, an industry spokesperson said the mistake was "a paperwork issue".