House passes bill to restrain federal fracking rules

By Nick Juliano, EE News 
November 21, 2013

The House yesterday passed 235-187 a bill that would restrain federal rules related to oil and natural gas hydraulic fracturing in states that regulate the practice.

Passage of H.R. 2728 closed another chapter in the weeklong energy bill focus on the House floor. Earlier yesterday, the House voted on a bill to speed Bureau of Land Management leasing to energy companies, and today will bring likely passage of legislation to require construction of additional oil and gas pipelines.

Just after the House bill passed yesterday evening, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) distributed a companion Senate bill he introduced to rein in federal fracking rules.

"The last thing we need is costly and duplicative regulation from Washington on top of what's already in place in Utah," Hatch said. "This bill does nothing to stop the federal government from implementing fracking standards in states where none exist -- it simply says that regulations from the federal government cannot trump state action already in place."

A dozen House Democrats supported the bill: Reps. John Barrow (Ga.), Sanford Bishop (Ga.), Jim Costa (Calif.), Henry Cuellar (Texas), Sheila Jackson Lee (Texas), Ann Kirkpatrick (Ariz.), Jim Matheson (Utah), Mike McIntyre (N.C.), Collin Peterson (Minn.), Nick Rahall (W.Va.), Cedric Richmond (La.) and Terri Sewell (Ala.). Republican Reps. Chris Gibson (N.Y.) and Jon Runyan (N.J.) were the only members of their party to vote against the bill.

The bills are aimed at impending BLM rules to require chemical disclosure and strengthen well bore integrity and flowback water management standards, a draft of which attracted nearly a million comments this summer (EnergyWire, Aug. 23). It would prevent the Interior Department from enforcing rules related to hydraulic fracturing in "any state that has regulations, guidance or permit requirements for that activity."

But Democrats during yesterday's floor debate warned that H.R. 2728's effects would be far more reaching. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), ranking member of the Natural Resources Committee, distributed a "dear colleague" letter listing several laws and regulations that he said the bill would block, including the Endangered Species Act, Migratory Bird Treaty Act and several conditions BLM attaches to drilling permits regulating casing, wastewater, the time of year they can drill and other aspects of the process.

Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) made a similar point during floor debate, charging that the bill would strip the Interior Department "of the ability to enforce almost any regulation on the books."

Republicans argued that states were best positioned to regulate fracking and warned that federal rules were inadequate to apply to different geological formations across the country and that requiring companies to answer to BLM could slow the U.S. energy boom.

"This recent boom in energy production would not be possible without the recent technological advances of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing," Resources Chairman Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) said from the floor, pointing to a dramatic growth in gas extracted from shale formations. He added that "duplicative" regulations from the Interior Department would prevent further development of potential gas resources.

The bill also includes language targeting a U.S. EPA study of fracking, which Republicans say should focus on likely -- rather than merely possible -- consequences of the extraction practice (EnergyWire, Aug. 2).

Before the final vote, the House voted 188-232 to reject a Democratic motion to add tougher requirements that gas drillers disclose the chemicals they use in fracking. Also voted down were DeFazio's amendment to block exports of gas extracted from public lands, which fell 142-276, and Holt's amendment to authorize Interior regulations of methane emissions from fracking, which went down 190-230.

On voice votes, lawmakers agreed to Rep. Bill Flores' (R-Texas) amendment requiring states to submit fracking regulations to BLM, an amendment from Costa and Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) ordering a Government Accountability Office study of fracking's economic benefits, and Jackson Lee's amendment requiring the Interior secretary to submit an annual report on state fracking activities.

While the energy bills have had a near-monopoly on the House floor this week, they have relatively little attention elsewhere, as all three bills are destined to die in the Democratic-held Senate, and even most Republicans seemed to want to focus on other issues such as the continued troubles rolling out the Affordable Care Act.