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FARMINGTON – The Trump administration‘s sweeping rollback of Obama-era rules governing some drilling practices on government lands was welcomed by industry leaders – and excoriated by environmental groups.

Most San Juan Basin drilling leases are managed by the Bureau of Land Management, which came under fire earlier this year by Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke for its large drilling permit application backlog nationwide. Zinke, in a secretarial order issued in July, promised to streamline the BLM permitting process and send more money for BLM staff in the next federal budget. 

While unrelated to the permit backlog, the removal of federal rules mandating disclosure of chemicals used during the fracking process indicates a change in the way BLM is managed under the Trump administration.

Fracking process and prevalence

It was a March 29 secretarial order that led to the fracking rule elimination. 

Secretarial Order No. 3349, “Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth,” found that “all 32 of the 32 states with federal oil and gas leases have regulations that address hydraulic fracturing,” and companies in those states are using state agencies and databases to list the contents of fracking fluids, BLM said in a press release.

Fracking is a commonly-used process that injects water and chemicals into a well under pressure to break open hydrocarbon deposits and thus increase the productivity of a well.

Related story: Zinke tells BLM to speed onshore drilling lease process

BLM figures indicate that about “1,700 production wells were or would be drilled in Fiscal Year (FY) 2017 on Federal and Indian lands,” BLM said in a press release Thursday. “Of those wells drilled in FY17, it is estimated that approximately 90 percent were completed using hydraulic fracturing techniques to stimulate production.”

The process requires several million gallons of water each time it is utilized.

Environmentalists say the potential risks to groundwater require regulation, The Associated Press reported.

The final rule is online at www.regulations.gov.

Mixed reactions

"The repeal of this rule is a victory for all New Mexico oil and natural gas producers, cutting duplicative and redundant rules and clearing the way for more safe, responsible production that benefits our entire state and funds our schools," New Mexico Oil and Gas Association spokesman Robert McEntyre said via email. "The administration’s more balanced approach to oil and gas regulations benefits all New Mexicans, instead of simply appeasing political and special interest groups with costly regulatory favors as was common under the prior administration."

The rollback was praised by the Washington, D.C.-based Independent Petroleum Association of America and Denver-based Western Energy Alliance, which sued to block the rules.

They noted the federal rules would have duplicated state rules, putting unnecessary and expensive burdens on petroleum developers.

"States have an exemplary safety record regulating fracking, and that environmental protection will continue as before," Western Energy Alliance President Kathleen Sgamma said in a release to the Associated Press.

“When industry fights common-sense rules like these it makes me wonder what oil and gas has to hide,” Rio Grande Chapter Sierra Club Director Camilla Feibelman told The Daily Times via email. “Shouldn't communities that host these companies have the right to know what might be in their water and if it has the potential to do them harm? It's disappointing to see the Trump administration put industry profit ahead of community health over and over again. Our government should require transparency from companies operating on public land and that are making huge profits from natural resources we all own.” 

The Sierra Club was not alone in its opposition.

"Fracking is a toxic business, and that's why states and countries have banned it. Trump's reckless decision to repeal these common-sense protections will have serious consequences," Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in an email to The Associated Press.

The BLM did not return calls and emails to local, state and federal offices.

Other BLM changes

Earlier this month, the BLM made another administrative move on a hot environmental topic.

On Dec. 7 BLM stated in the Federal Register that it temporarily suspended parts of the 2016 final Waste Prevention Rule which is also called the Venting and Flaring Rule, until Jan. 17, 2019.

“As we strengthen America’s energy independence, we need to make sure that regulations do not unnecessarily encumber energy production, constrain economic growth, or prevent job creation,” Brian Steed, BLM Deputy Director for Policy and Programs, said in a press release Dec. 7. “By holding off on certain requirements, the BLM now has sufficient time to review the 2016 final rule while avoiding any compliance costs on industry that may not be needed after the review.”

The rules rescinded today were supposed to take effect in 2015, but a federal judge in Wyoming blocked them at the last minute. In September, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver declined to rule in that case because the Trump administration intended to rescind the rules, The Associated Press reported.

Mead Gruver of The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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