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Commission Issues New Rules for Fracking in Alaska

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The Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (AOGCC) finalized changes to administrative code last week that define hydraulic fracturing and establish the responsibilities of drillers in Alaska.

AOGCC held public hearings in Anchorage on the changes in April and September of 2013, as well as January of this year. The commission also accepted written public comment. On December 8, Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott’s office certified the new regulations, which take effect in January of 2015.

Hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as fracking, is the process of pumping fluids and sand into underground rock to release oil and natural gas.

The U.S. Geological Survey estimated in 2012 that up to two billion barrels of oil and 80 trillion cubic feet of gas are held in shale primarily within the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A).

Fracking is controversial. While the process requires a tenth of the water that oil extraction does, and while the increasing availability of natural gas is causing a shift away from dirtier energy sources like coal, fracking fluids and chemicals released by the fracturing of rock can pose serious risks to human and environmental health.

According to a new report titled, “The Environmental Costs and Benefits of Fracking,” 23 percent of about 1,200 wellheads near Lloydminster, Alberta had measurable surface and soil gas leakage.

Ohio and Texas reported a combined 396 cases of groundwater contamination from fracking. This is not the type of contamination that can be flitered by even the best water filter jugs. Stray gas was found in the well water of numerous Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia homeowners, while fracking fluid made its way into the wells of Pavillion, Wyoming.

Testing of water from near fracking sites yielded high levels of arsenic, selenium, and strontium, metals that are dangerous to humans in elevated amounts. The wells in Pavillion had levels of benzene 50 times above safe levels. Benzene is a known carcinogen.

The report blames the failure of wellbore integrity as the source of these cases. The new Alaska regulations require that fracking operators include pressure test information in their applications. They must also test casings “to 110 percent of the maximum anticipated pressure differential to which the casing[s] may be subjected.”  During fracking operations, pressure “must be continuously monitored and recorded.”

All property owners within a half-mile of drilling must be notified of the operation under the new rules. To protect water sources, all water wells and aquifers within a half-mile must be identified and measured. Water must be sampled before drilling to measure metals, including arsenic, selenium, and strontium, as well as chemicals like benzene. AOGCC has the option of requiring water sampling after drilling is completed.

The Alaska Oil and Gas Association’s Kara Moriarty balked at the testing requirements, saying it would lead to higher costs. “And whenever there’s increased cost there could be ramifications on overall production and resource extraction,” Moriarty told Alaska Public Media in September 2013. “And from our standpoint that’s a risk that could be associated with these proposals.”

Moriarty also protested provisions that require disclosure of the fracking fluid composition down to the specific chemical ingredients. Many environmentalists in the Lower 48 have complained that they can’t gauge the impact of fracking because the fluid is somewhat of a mystery.

Moriarty took a different position: “If [the fracking companies] can’t get their recipe protected, as they continue to evolve and make their practices better, [Alaska] may miss out on the opportunity to have the latest and greatest recipe out there for enhanced recovery and environmental protection.”

Alaska will join only eight other states, as of 2012, requiring Chemical Abstract Service (CAS)  numbers for all fracking chemicals used. However, the new regulations were amended following the September 2013 hearing to include a trade secrets exemption.

Under Alaska law, fracking companies can deem any information required by the regulations, including the chemical composition of fracking fluid, confidential. The state will only consider releasing the information claimed confidential upon a formal public records request. Even then, the company will have the chance to defend its confidentiality claim to AOGCC before the release. AOGCC will then make the final determination to release the information or not.

Wastewater is another concern related to fracking. After water and fracking fluid have fractured rock, the resulting wastewater is contaminated with a variety of salts, metals, and gases. Most of it is injected underground, producing the majority of- and the largest- earthquakes associated with fracking.

Wastewater also returns to the surface during drilling. This is called flowback. Flowback has the potential to contaminate surface water.

Alaska is already highly susceptible to earthquakes. The North Slope environment is particularly sensitive to events like spills and is a repository of methane. But the area is sparsely populated and unlikely to yield dramatic videos of tap water on fire that locations have in the Lower 48.

Environmentalists may be disappointed that the new laws don’t go far enough to protect Alaskans or the environment. However, fracking already took place in Alaska prior to last week and was not specifically regulated. The new rules are some of the strongest in the country and now provide the public with some additional tools to check industry.