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House Republicans are pushing legislation to limit the federal government’s authority to regulate hydraulic fracturing as polls show the public supports the practice and scientific studies attest to its environmental benefits.
The House is expected to vote on legislation on Wednesday that would prohibit the Interior Department from regulating hydraulic fracturing, an innovative technique to extract oil and gas from shale rock formations.
The bill would prevent Interior from regulating fracking, as the practice is commonly known, on federal land in any state that already regulates the practice.
Top administration officials have signaled that they believe natural gas is a key component of the country’s energy portfolio. However, Rep. Bill Flores (R., Tex.), who introduced the legislation, said the administration “talks out of both sides of its mouth” on the issue.
Flores said that oil and gas production on federal land in his home state is down by about 20 percent, even as production on state and private land skyrockets.
Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which oversees the nearly 650 million acres of land owned by the federal government, withdrew 100,000 acres in Utah from an oil and gas permitting auction this week.
That move drew criticism from Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah), who said BLM was acting as “a vehicle for policies created by radical environmentalists."
James Nelson, the commissioner of Emery County, Utah, and a member of BLM’s resource advisory council, noted that the lease sales were postponed, not taken off the table entirely.
Any regulatory decisions that slow down oil and gas production are “devastating to us,” Nelson said.
“We need to look into the ramifications of this,” he added. “Developing natural resources is vital to our county.”
Flores’ bill would prevent similar impediments to energy production by prohibiting BLM from enforcing any “permit requirement regarding hydraulic fracturing” in states, such as Utah, that already have their own permitting regimes.
Interior secretary Sally Jewell has stressed the importance of federal regulation, but observers say she and other administration officials are not on board with environmentalists’ most radical demands.
"I think that there's a lot of misinformation about fracking," Jewell told reporters earlier this month. "I think that it's part of the industry's job to make sure that the public understands what it is, how it's done and why it's safe.”
One industry insider said that Jewell’s phrasing—“why,” not “if,” the practice is safe—suggests that she approaches the issue with more nuance than environmental activists that have vehemently fought the adoption of hydraulic fracturing.
Fracking’s increasing prevalence has propelled the United States from a position of energy scarcity to the world’s top producer of petroleum products. The United States is expected to overtake OPEC giant Saudi Arabia in oil production by the end of the decade.
Environmental activists, frequently employing false or misleading information on the practice, have pushed BLM to ban fracking on federal land altogether. That seems unlikely given the affinity for natural gas among top administration officials.
President Barack Obama’s “climate action plan” features it prominently, and Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has stressed its qualities as a “bridge fuel” between carbon-intensive coal and large-scale adoption of power derived from renewable fuels.
However, industry groups say BLM and other federal agencies that regulate the practice will inevitably impose one-size-fits-all rules that don’t account for differing conditions facing energy-producing states.
“I also don’t think they realize how what they’re proposing on federal lands would impact development,” an industry insider told the Washington Free Beacon.
“Their statements to date suggest they just want some sort of uniform nationwide standard, but that presupposes that geology and concerns are also uniform, which they aren’t.”
Flores said that even stalwart environmentalists such as former EPA administrator Lisa Jackson and her successor, Gina McCarthy, have noted the relative safety of hydraulic fracturing, despite environmentalist concerns about groundwater contamination and other issues.
"I'm not aware of documented cases” of fracking contaminating water supplies, Jewell said at a congressional hearing in July.
"We haven't seen anything to show that wells have been contaminated by fracking," said the University of Cincinnati geologist who conducted the study. "We are seeing good quality water here."
Flores suspects that the administration’s aversion to fracking has less to do with its immediate environmental impacts than a general desire to shift the country away from fossil fuels altogether.
“They’d ban it altogether if they could,” he said at a Tuesday event. “If they can stop that, they can accelerate our movement away from carbon” and towards renewable fuels, he added.
If it does move to further limit hydraulic fracturing, the administration will have to contend with public opinion. A recent poll shows Americans are generally in favor of the practice.
The survey, conducted by the Robert Morris University Polling Institute, found that 42.3 percent are in favor of hydraulic fracturing, while 32.8 percent are opposed to the practice.
Forty percent of respondents said they would favor hydraulic fracturing in their hometowns, while fewer than 35 percent said they would oppose it.