Last Friday, the Department of Interior released its final rule updating the regulations that govern hydraulic fracturing on federal public and American Indian lands. It covers standards for wells and well construction, disposal of wastewater, and disclosure of chemicals used in the fracking process. These regulations have been in the works since 2012, and Interior received more than 1.5 million comments on its draft rules.
The new rule will require validation of well integrity and strong cement barriers between the wellbore and water zones. Operators also must take measures to lower the risk of cross-well contamination with fracking chemicals and fluids, a goal that will be achieved through the mandatory submission of more detailed information on the geology, depth, and location of preexisting wells. Construction also must be guided by a specifically designed and implemented casing and cementing program that follows best practices and meets performance standards in order to protect and isolate usable water. During well construction, the site must monitor cementing operations and must take remedial action if there is an indication of inadequate cementing. If remedial action is taken, the operator must prove it was successful. Before beginning the hydraulic fracturing operation, the operator must perform a successful mechanical integrity test. The operator must also monitor annulus pressure throughout the fracturing operation.
There will also be higher standards for interim storage of recovered waste fluids. They must be managed in rigid enclosed, covered or netted and screened above-ground storage tanks. Exceptions to this rule are limited and must be approved on a case-by-case basis.
The new regulations will also require public disclosure of the chemicals used within 30 days of completing fracturing operations. There will be limited exceptions for material demonstrated through affidavit to be trade secrets. The FracFocus website, voluntarily developed by industry and others, can be used for the mandatory disclosure and will introduce new features in 2015.
The final rule differs from the proposed rule in a number of ways, and will be effective 90 days after its publication in the Federal Register. The regulations cover 700 million subsurface acres, which account for 11% of the natural gas and 5% of the oil consumed in the United States.
The Department of Interior justified the rule on a need to address public concerns related to hydraulic fracturing—not actual risks, as there has never been an instance of groundwater contamination attributed to hydraulic fracturing. Indeed, industry has called the rule unnecessary and duplicative as states regulate federal land within their borders and are going so effectively without incident.