Later this week, the Bureau of Land Management will be closing the opportunity for public comment on its proposed rules to regulate hydraulic fracturing on public lands. The final rule will determine what safeguards against hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) are—or are not—in place on nearly 700 million acres of federally managed mineral rights nationwide. This includes national forests, national wildlife refuges, Tribal lands, private property, and drinking water sources for millions of people.

Unfortunately some of the proposed rules are based on concepts that lack scientific and technical merit, and therefore may not effectively reduce the risks that oil and gas production poses to public health and the environment.

It’s not too late for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to address these errors before it releases the final rules. NRDC and a coalition of other environmental groups will be submitting comments this week that highlight those weaknesses, and make suggestions for how to improve the rules.

An overview of some of what we’ll be suggesting follows.

Credit and link: National Resources Defense Council

Well Stimulation vs. Hydraulic Fracturing

The revised proposed rules would only apply to hydraulic fracturing instead of all forms of well stimulation. However, hydraulic fracturing is only one of the two primary well stimulation techniques used by the oil and gas industry today, the other being what is known as acidizing or acid stimulation.[1] It has been estimated that more than 40,000 acid stimulation treatments are performed in oil and gas wells every year.[2]

Multiple different types of acid are used in acid stimulation, including hydrochloric acid and hydrofluoric acid. Hydrofluoric acid in particular is extremely toxic and exposure to it can be life threatening. In addition to acid, many other potentially toxic chemicals are used in acid stimulation fluids, including some of the exact same products used in hydraulic fracturing fluids. [3] Like with hydraulic fracturing, these chemicals must be disclosed in order to properly manage the associated environmental and public health risks.

The acids used in acidizing treatments are corrosive and present a risk to well integrity. Just like with hydraulic fracturing, mechanical integrity must be established and maintained before, during, and after acid stimulation. The spent acid that returns to the surface after acidizing poses similar environmental risks as produced water and hydraulic fracturing flowback and must also be properly handled, transported, and disposed of.

Acidizing presents many of the same environmental and public health risks as hydraulic fracturing and should be regulated similarly. That is why the BLM’s first draft of rules, issued last year, rightly would have covered both. The new draft, issued this year, would not apply to acidizing. The BLM should reverse this mistake and ensure any final rule applies to acidizing and other forms of well stimulation.

“Type Wells”

Another major flaw in the revised proposed rules is the Bureau of Land Management’s new “type well” approach. This approach would allow operators to run a cement evaluation log (CEL) – an important way to verify well integrity and ensure groundwater is protected – on only certain wells in a field. The Bureau of Land Management proposal would also allow operators to submit a single permit application for a group of wells, excusing them from submitting unique information that pertains to the risks of hydraulic fracturing for each well. This approach is based on the Bureau of Land Management’s false assumption that wells that are drilled through the same rocks will behave the same way. There is no scientific basis for this assumption.

To the contrary, geology can vary significantly over very short distances. These geologic variations necessitate differences in well stimulation design and operation. As such, all the information submitted in a stimulation permit application should be unique to the well for which a permit is being sought. However under this proposed rule, operators would be allowed to submit generic information about important well characteristics, such as the depth to drinking water and the hydraulic fracturing design. This means that Bureau of Land Management regulators could be making decisions to issue permits without critical information about drilling and fracturing operations, and therefore without a complete understanding of the environmental and public health risks.

Cement and casing failures are recognized as one of the most likely ways by which contaminants may reach groundwater. CELs are an important tool for reducing these failures because they help operators and regulators determine whether the cement is properly bonded to the casing, and therefore whether all fluids are properly isolated. However, under the proposed “type well” rules, the Bureau of Land Management would allow a CEL from one well to be used as a proxy for multiple wells.

This approach is dangerously flawed because CELs from a single well provide no information about the cement integrity of a completely different well. Furthermore, the proposed rules would allow CELs to be submitted *after* hydraulic fracturing is performed. If drinking water isn’t properly protected, the well needs to be fixed before stimulation. However, under the proposed rules, BLM regulators may not know if there’s a problem until after stimulation has happened – or they may not know at all, if the results submitted are for a different well.

As my colleagues Amy Mall and Matt McFeeley describe further, these are only a few examples of how the Bureau of Land Management’s proposed rules fail to protect public health and our shared natural resources from the risks associated with oil and gas production.

In testimony before the House Natural Resources Committee, Interior[4] Secretary Jewell discussed the revised proposed rule on hydraulic fracturing and stated, “…it is important that the public have full confidence that the right safety and environmental protections are in place.” 

Unfortunately these rules fall far short of that goal. But it’s not too late for the Bureau of Land Management to change that.


[1] Economides, M.J.; Nolte, K.G. (Eds.), Reservoir Stimulation, 3rd ed., Wiley: New York, 2000.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] The BLM is an agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior