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Local Elected Officials Urge BLM to Strengthen Proposed Fracking Rule

Last week, a group of lawmakers from Ohio, Michigan, and Colorado urged the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to toughen its proposed rule for hydraulic fracturing (fracking) on federal land, calling it essential to protecting the public and the environment.

Four Ohio state legislators, nine Michigan state legislators, and 22 Colorado state legislators and local elected city officials signed letters to President Obama calling for the Department of Interior's Bureau of Land Management to strengthen its proposed rule on hydraulic fracturing on public lands, "Oil and Gas; Hydraulic Fracturing on Federal and Indian Lands." The rule, which is expected to be finalized in early 2014, will regulate fracking on over 750 million of acres of public land (including national forests, wildlife refuges, and BLM-managed public wildlands and habitats), tribal, and even private lands.   

Colorado lawmakers highlight that out of the 750 million acres of public land that would be affected by the BLM rule, about 23 million of those acres are in Colorado. And in February 2013 alone, the BLM leased over 88,000 acres in Colorado to oil and gas operators.  

In Ohio, 256,960 acres of public land would be affected by the BLM rule. In Michigan, 3,679,970 acres of public land would be affected. And in September 2013 alone, the BLM leased over 27,815 acres in Michigan to oil and gas operators.

In their letters, the elected officials make a compelling argument for a more stringent BLM rule: "While the proposed rule is a significant step forward, there are a number of essential features missing from the BLM proposal, many of which have already been enacted by states without opposition from industry." The rulemaking was originally initiated to provide much-needed guidelines for drilling activities on federal and tribal land under BLM jurisdiction. However, as the lawmakers point out in their letters to President Obama and Interior Secretary Sally Jewel, "the BLM yielded to industry pressure and weakened the rule in its second version."

The lawmakers urge the BLM to adopt the following measures to ensure better protection for clean water and healthy communities:

  • The prohibition of fracking in critical/sensitive areas, including national forests, land contiguous to national parks, and source water areas, among others;
  • Banning the use of open waste pits;
  • The full disclosure of chemical inputs and thorough pre-drilling water testing; and
  • Banning the use of diesel and other hazardous toxic chemicals.

In their letters, the Ohio, Michigan and Colorado lawmakers ask that a mechanism be added to the rule that ensures lands designated or set aside because of their ecological value or because they contain a drinking water source are kept "off limits" to fracking activity. The lawmakers point out that the current proposed rule fails to include a provision to protect certain unique and sensitive areas despite the fact that the importance of this provision was outlined as a recommendation by the president's own national shale gas advisory subcommittee in its August 2011 90-day report. Lawmakers emphasize how vulnerable the BLM rule leaves their individual states.

Colorado lawmakers argue that Colorado's Thompson Divide, North Fork Valley, and South Park Basin are areas that are too ecologically sensitive for fracking activities. For example, Thompson Divide, a heavily forested area that spans five watersheds, not only provides valuable habitat for lynx, mountain lion, bear, moose, trout, and elk but also brings $30 million a year from recreation and grazing activities to Colorado's economy. In Ohio, the most notable impacts will occur in the Wayne National Forest, Ohio's only national forest. In Michigan, lawmakers rightly argue that Lake Michigan and Huron Watershed, which provide drinking water to tens of millions of people, should be designated as areas that are too critical for fracking activities.

In addition to urging the BLM to require an off-limits provision that keeps drilling away from homes, communities, and sensitive natural areas, the lawmakers also call on the BLM to require drillers to fully disclose the chemicals they use, before fracking occurs, and with no exemptions for so-called "trade secrets."  Furthermore, they argue that other commonsense requirements should include guidelines such as rigorous baseline testing of water quality before drilling happens; banning the use of diesel fuel as a fracking fluid; and requiring the capture of methane -- and that these must be in place to provide the most basic level of health protections. (Read Michael Brune’s blog article and New Mexico rancher Tweeti Blancett's story for more details about what's missing from the proposed BLM rule).

As it stands, the currently proposed rule fails to deliver on President Obama's 2012 State of the Union promise that America would develop resources like natural gas "without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk." The lawmakers' letters demonstrate the broad support that exists for a stronger rule for fracking on public lands that adequately protects people and the environment. Not only have over 1 million individuals expressed concerns about the currently proposed rule, but 35 city and state elected officials from Ohio, Michigan, and Colorado have spoken up and expressed grave concerns about the rule's failure to protect their state's special places and constituents.

The Obama administration should take such wide concern for the currently proposed rule as a serious sign that the rule needs to be strengthened before it is finalized in 2014. 

-- by Jenny Bock

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