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Published: Friday, 5/11/2012

Weak fracking rule

The Obama Administration's proposed rule for hydraulic oil and natural-gas drilling on public lands is the equivalent of closing the barn door after the horses have escaped.

A new Interior Department proposal calls for companies to disclose the chemicals they use to extract gas and oil from shale deposits deep underground. An earlier plan would have required them to release the information at least 30 days before starting a well.

But the new provision says the contents of the hydraulic-fracturing fluid -- water, sand, and toxic chemicals -- don't have to be divulged until after drilling is over. That's hardly proactive.

The rule was supposed to address concerns raised by environmentalists, scientists, politicians, and landowners about potential groundwater contamination and the treatment of tainted water that flows out of wells during and after drilling. Researchers and physicians say that knowing the contents of the chemicals used to extract gas and oil is key to pinpointing potential health issues.

But the Obama Administration, under criticism from Republicans and industry officials, bowed to drillers' objections. They said the additional paperwork would slow the permitting process and could jeopardize trade secrets. Federal regulators decided that scientists could use the records to trace future contamination after the fact, and that there was no reason to require advance disclosure.

The federal rule would apply only to 3,000 or so wells drilled each year on 700 million acres of public land administered by the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management and 56 million acres of Indian land. Regulation of drilling on private land -- the majority of the 13,000 wells drilled each year -- falls to the states. Some already require prior disclosure of fracking chemicals.

Regulations for public lands should be as stringent as those imposed by states. The watered-down rule is too weak.

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