The Obama administration unveiled the first major nationwide safety restrictions for fracking on Friday, a move that will touch off a fresh political confrontation between the president and his critics in Congress and the energy industry.
The Interior Department’s rules are the federal government’s most comprehensive foray to date toward regulating the technology at the heart of the U.S. oil and gas boom, addressing worries such as potential dangers to drinking water. They will also offer oil and gas supporters new room to accuse President Barack Obama of seeking to throttle fossil-fuel production, despite his repeated boasts about the nation’s booming energy supplies.
At the same time, the rules fall short of environmentalists’ biggest demands for oversight of fracking operations — let alone some groups’ calls for an all-out ban.
Interior’s regulations apply only to land owned by the federal government or Indian tribes, so they won’t end the current patchwork of state laws and local ordinances governing the practice in hot spots like Pennsylvania, south Texas and North Dakota. But the industry and its supporters in Congress still call it an overreach, arguing that greens are massively exaggerating the dangers and that states are adequately regulating the industry already.
“Washington continues to come out with regulations that make it more complex and complicated to develop American energy,” said GOP Sen. John Barrasso, whose home state of Wyoming imposed its own fracking regulations in 2010. He said he is “likely to oppose whatever” Interior’s Bureau of Land Management proposes.
“Despite the renaissance on state and private lands, energy production on federal lands has fallen, and this rule is just one more barrier to growth,” said Erik Milito, the American Petroleum Institute’s upstream operations director, in a statement Friday.
Now the rule faces a Republican Congress that already has shown hostility toward federal fracking regulations, exemplified by a bill the House passed in 2013 that would have prevented Interior from overruling states’ fracking rules. The White House threatened to veto that bill, in part because it “would undermine” Interior’s work.
Congressional Democrats did not wait for Interior to finish its fracking rule before firing off their own efforts to rein in oil and gas development. Environmentalists cheered Thursday’s introduction of five House bills on the topic, including a proposal to close the so-called Halliburton loophole, a 2005 amendment that prohibits EPA from regulating most fracking activity under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) has also reintroduced that bill in the Senate.