They're popping up all over America's public lands, bringing toxic chemicals and dangerous pollution to beautiful wild areas and nearby farms and communities. Fracking rigs have spread like poisonous mushrooms across land managed by the federal government, which leases millions of acres a year to oil and gas companies.
Most Americans don't know that 90 percent of wells drilled on our public lands are now fracked. There is, however, growing awareness of the dangers of fracking. This process, also known as hydraulic fracturing, involves blasting millions of gallons of water, mixed with industrial chemicals (including carcinogens), into the earth to fracture rock formations.
But anyone hoping the Obama Administration would protect our public lands and public health from fracking pollution got a sobering reality check late last week.
Proposed fracking regulations unveiled Friday by new Interior Secretary Sally Jewell would do little to safeguard our air, water or wildlife. This draft rule is even weaker than the first version of the regulations, withdrawn after the oil and gas industry threw a fit over not getting a free pass.
Fossil fuel executives can breathe easy now -- even if the rest of us choke on air pollution. The Bureau of Land Management's new draft fracking rule actually seems designed to encourage as much fracking as possible on public lands, while keeping the public in the dark about dangerous chemical use.
Among the biggest flaws in the BLM's planned regulations:
1. A "trade secrets" loophole would allow well operators not to disclose dangerous fracking chemicals: Under the proposal, oil and gas companies would not even submit the identity of chemicals claimed to be trade secrets to the government. Federal regulators would decide whether to allow fracking without this information -- and would not have the names of these chemicals in the event of a spill or accident.
Neither the public nor medical professionals treating patients exposed to fracking pollution would have access to chemical information hidden by this loophole. Companies used a similar trade secrets loophole in Texas more than 19,000 times in a single year to avoid disclosing the use of certain fracking chemicals.
2. Public notification of chemical use would occur only after the fact, using the discredited FracFocus website: The BLM rule would require oil and gas companies to report only chemicals not claimed to be trade secrets -- and only after fracking has already taken place. Companies could use the industry-friendly and fatally flawed FracFocus website.
A recent Harvard Law School analysis found the use of FracFocus "sends a strong signal to industry that careful reporting and compliance is not a top priority." That's because the website prevents government officials from enforcing deadlines for reporting, allows oil and gas companies to edit and delete information at any time, doesn't verify the accuracy of information, and does in fact contain inaccurate information.
3. Little regulatory protection for air, water or climate: The BLM's draft regulations do nothing to protect us from fracking air pollution, despite a Colorado School of Public Health study finding that people living near fracked wells are at greater risk of asthma and other respiratory problems, as well as cancer, caused by air pollutants.
The regulations do not protect residents from exposure to, or contamination by, the large volume of toxic wastewater fracking produces. For example, they continue to allow fracking fluids to be stored in open pits.
They also don't require well operators to use devices to capture methane, a dangerously potent greenhouse gas. And the regulations ignore seismic risks, despite the potential for fracking and the disposal of fracking wastewater to cause earthquakes.
4. No requirement to collect baseline air and water data needed for effective regulation: Well operators would not be required to collect and disclose basic air-quality and water-quality data prior to fracking. Without such data, it's much more difficult to verify and trace pollutants when damage has occurred from fracking.
5. Ignores Obama Administration's own fracking advisory board: President Obama charged a Department of Energy advisory panel with making recommendations on how fracking should be regulated. Among the panel's recommendations: full disclosure of the chemicals used in fracking, collection of baseline data so impacts can actually be monitored, and a ban on fracking with diesel fuel, one of the most dangerous practices. Yet, inexplicably, the BLM has adopted none of these recommendations. That's an insult to those who served on this panel -- and a disturbing sign of how much these regulations cater to the oil and gas industry.
The best way to protect our environment from fracking would be to prohibit this inherently dangerous form of fossil fuel extraction. Of course, it's not surprising that the Obama Administration, with its "all of the above" energy strategy, has not proposed banning fracking on public lands.
But what is shocking is the utter inadequacy of the new proposed rule. If the Obama Administration wants to provide any real protection for our air, water and climate, Secretary Jewell should withdraw these regulations a second time and go back to the drawing board.