State commission finalizes tough new rules on fracking

Alaska’s oil and gas regulatory commission has adopted new rules governing hydraulic fracturing, the chairman of the commission told a state legislative committee April 8. The final rule is being reviewed by the state Attorney General and must still be signed by Alaska Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, but those are formalities.

The rules will require testing of all water wells within a half-mile radius of a well to be fractured, and mandate testing of the wells for contamination after the fracture job is completed, according to Cathy Foerster, chair of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, or AOGCC.

In some cases testing of water wells prior to the fracturing may be required at the discretion of the commission.

Foerster appeared before the state senate’s TAPS Throughput Committee, a special committee formed to review oil and gas technical issues, to discuss issued before the commission including the fracturing rules.

The Alaska Oil and Gas Association, or AOGA, the industry’s trade group, said the new Alaska rules may be one of the most stringent in the nation, according to Josh Kindred, regulatory and legal affairs manager for the association, in an interview.

Other states require water well testing within one-quarter of a mile of the well to be fractured or require only a set number of wells to be tested.

“We’re not aware of any other state that will require all wells within half a mile to be tested,” Kindred said.

The rule will also require disclosure of chemicals used in fracturing fluids and for the chemicals to be reported to FracFocus, a national website maintained for public disclosure of chemicals used in hyraulic fracturing.

Foerster said the disclosure requirements are generally similar to other states require and will adequately protect the trade secrets of service companies working on “frac” jobs.

One concern of the industry is that companies will have to report separately to FracFocus and to the state oil and gas conservation commission and it is not yet clear that the reporting requirements will be similar, which could lead to more administrative burdens on companies.

Also, requirements for pre-approval by the commission, which some other states also require, could pose problems for companies in Alaska that may often face seasonal constraints if there are delays.

Overall, the industry’s concern is that the rules go well beyond what is needed to protect the public.

“Our concern is that these regulations will result in substantial costs without providing any real tangible benefit to the public, as most hydraulic fracture treatments in Alaska take place thousands of feet below any drinking water,” said Kara Moriarty, executive director of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association.

Foerster told the senate committee April 8 that the AOGCC has regulated hydraulic fracturing in Alaska for years and that the update of its rules is being done to demonstrate that the state regulatory commission is on top of an issue that is now attracting attention in Alaska.

“We’ve been hydraulic fracturing wells in Alaska for over 40 years. About a quarter of all wells drilled in Alaska have been fractured,” she said.

 “The rule update has been a multi-year effort, first to keep up with technology advances, second to address fracturing fluids disclosure and water quality monitoring and third to gather all of our regulatory requirements into a section titled hydraulic fracturing to make it easier for the public to see how we are regulating hydraulic fracturing.”

A few years ago a coal-bed methane exploration program in Southcentral Alaska sparked intense public controversy when homeowners complained about threats to water wells from fluids used in drilling into shallow coal seams.

The program, and controversy, ended in 2004 when the company involved, Denver-based Evergreen Resources Inc. was purchased by Pioneer Natural Resources. Pioneer closed down the program due to poor results from the drilling and the public controversy.

11/21/2016 - 9:23am