House votes to restrict federal regulation of fracing

The US House of Representatives approved legislation largely along party lines to keep the US Bureau of Land Management from imposing its own hydraulic fracturing regulations in states that already have their own requirements.

HR 2728 passed by 235 to 187 votes, following heated debate. Democrats charged it would keep drinking water supplies from being adequately protected and not let the federal government enforce existing regulations. Republicans argued it would help unconventional oil and gas production continue to grow safely without excessive, duplicative rules.

“States have successfully, efficiently, and safely been regulating this process for the past 60 years and imposing a ‘one-size-fits-all’ federal regulatory structure, as the Obama administration is attempting to do, is both unnecessary and simply will not work,” Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) said following the Nov. 20 vote.

But the committee’s ranking minority member, Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), said the measure would strip federal agencies’ authority to enforce nearly every public health, safety, and environmental protection related to oil and gas drilling and its impacts.

States’ regulations vary tremendously, he continued. “Some require comprehensive pressure testing of the casing, which is essential. Some don’t. Some require producers contain the fluids which come back up. Others allow them to be stored in open, unlined pits,” DeFazio said.

EPA study provision

The final bill, which initially was cosponsored by two committee members from Texas, Republican Bill Flores and Democrat Henry Cuellar, incorporated provisions from another measure, HR 2850, which House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman LaMar Smith (R-Tex.) introduced on July 30.

Consequently, the House also approved a provision directing the US Environmental Protection Agency to submit the fracing study it has been conducting for 3 years at Congress’s request to additional scientific analysis before completing it by Sept. 30, 2016 when it passed HR 2728.

“In its zeal to regulate, EPA has rushed to link water contamination to hydraulic fracturing,” Smith said during the Nov. 20 floor debate. “It has made this claim in three high-profile cases, only to be forced to retract its statements after the facts have come out. EPA’s track record does not instill confidence in [its] ongoing studies of the relationship between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water.”

But committee member Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), who led the opposition debate, said EPA’s Science Advisory Board fully reviewed the proposed study and determined that it was generally appropriate and comprehensive. It also recommended that the study consider some risks, but warned that a full risk assessment could add 5-7 years to the process, she added.

“The proponents of this legislation mischaracterize EPA’s study plan as flawed for failing to include a comprehensive risk assessment,” Bonamici said. “That position is not consistent with the conclusions of the highly qualified scientists, researchers, and industry representatives who are members of the EPA’s Independent Science Advisory Board, and importantly, Title II could delay the release of this very important study.”

Earlier bills

HR 2728 was considered immediately after the House passed another bill, HR 1965, by 228 to 192 votes which was aimed at reforming other Obama administration oil and gas policies.

“In recent years we have seen a boom in energy jobs and economic growth on state and private lands,” said Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), who chairs the Natural Resource Committee’s Energy and Power Subcommittee and introduced the original bill in May. “I believe the only reason we haven’t seen that same dynamic growth on federal lands is because of excess regulations. My bill would reduce the federal red tape and frivolous lawsuits that act as stumbling blocks to job creation and energy development.”

The measure the House approved incorporated four more bills, adding provisions that would require the Secretary of the Interior to develop a federal onshore energy production strategy every 4 years, nullify the Obama administration’s February 2013 plan for managing the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, give the Interior secretary authority to conduct Internet-based auctions for onshore federal leases, and encourage more Indian tribal energy resource development by blocking any federal fracing requirement unless Indian landowners consent to it.

The House also agreed to consider HR 1900 when it reconvened on Nov. 21. Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) introduced the original bill on May 9. It would amend the Natural Gas Act by requiring the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission issue a decision on a proposed natural gas pipeline within 12 months of receiving a completed application. The House passed the measure by 252 to 165 votes on Nov. 21.

Prospects for any of the approved bills becoming law looked dim. The US Senate appears unlikely to consider them. US Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) introduced a companion bill to HR 2728 on Nov. 20, but the White House has said it would veto the measure aimed at limiting new federal fracing regulations.

Passage applauded

Passage of HR 2728 nevertheless drew cheers from oil and gas industry and other groups.

“This legislation safeguards oil and gas development on federal lands by empowering states to regulate energy development, as they have been doing safely and responsibly,” observed Independent Petroleum Association of American Pres. Barry Russell.

“The long history of effective state regulation demonstrates that a one-size-fits-all federal requirement is unnecessary and will not increase environmental protection,” he said. Russell also applauded passage of the provisions from HR 2850 dealing with EPA’s fracing study.

Erik Milito, the American Petroleum Institute’s upstream and industry operations director, said, “Hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling are safe, proven technologies that have allowed the US to outpace Russia as the world’s number one producer of oil and natural gas.

“Hydraulic fracturing’s 60-year track record of safety—achieved under the stewardship of state regulators—has been recognized by both current and former Obama administration officials, and this legislation will preserve state leadership against unnecessary or duplicative federal regulations,” Milito added.

Christopher Guith, vice-president of policy at the US Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy, said, “Today’s vote in the House sends a strong signal against federal government interference in America’s most promising economic opportunity: energy development. We appreciate the support of a bipartisan majority of House members and look forward to working with Congress to ensure a policy framework that will allow our nation to take full advantage of our energy opportunities.”

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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