New regulations released Friday by the federal government address hydraulic fracturing in oil and gas wells but are unlikely to end the public health debate surrounding the controversial extraction process.
While the rules apply stricter parameters around how energy companies can perform hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as fracking, the public health effects are not yet clear. The rules will only apply to the roughly 100,000 wells that sit on federal land, or about 10% of all wells that have used fracking.
The new requirements “provide significant benefits to all Americans by avoiding potential damages to water quality, the environment and public health,” according to the final rule from the U.S. Interior Department and the Bureau of Land Management. The regulations will go into effect in three months.
In 2014, more than 1,000 physicians, nurses and health professionals wrote letters to President Barack Obama demanding that fracking be outlawed because it is a “public health emergency.”
The American Medical Association and the American Public Health Association did not immediately issue comments on the proposed fracking rules. However, the APHA has previously voiced its concern over fracking, arguing it presents “unique and significant health concerns” such as water and air pollution.
One of the new policies requires energy companies to publicly disclose which chemicals they use in their fracking processes within 30 days of initially using fracking at a well. Fracking involves injecting sand and chemicals into rock formations, which releases trapped oil and natural gas.
Public health advocates have raised concerns that the chemicals, which often go undisclosed to protect trade secrets, contaminate nearby drinking water sources and so could lead to chronic health problems.
Companies also will have to provide better protection around groundwater supplies and better storage of waste fluids under the new regs.
“This rule will protect public health and the environment during and after hydraulic fracturing operations at a modest cost,” Janice Schneider, assistant secretary for land and minerals management, said in a release.
GOP leaders and energy industry groups quickly blasted the rules as government overreach. Some environmental groups called the regulations a good first step, while others have advocated for outright bans on the process.
Studies have shown fracking was associated with higher rates of birth defects for children born to mothers who live close to natural gas development, altered the function of hormones, and raised the risk of cancer and other illnesses.
A U.S. Energy Department study from 2013 said fracking chemicals don't necessarily taint drinking water, though “the results are far too preliminary to make any firm claims.”