Rumor has it the Obama administration will soon release a slew of new regulations on hydraulic fracturing, a controversial oil and gas extraction technique that has helped usher in an unprecedented boom in domestic energy production in recent years.
Though industry insiders don't know when the new rules will be released or what exactly the proposed regulations will contain, some critics expect them to be even more accommodating to oil and gas companies than the draft rules proposed by the Department of the Interior last year.
That's ruffled more than a few feathers in the environmental community, many of whom decry fracking as environmentally destructive and disruptive to surrounding communities.
"We do fear that the [current draft rules] will be further weakened," says Amy Mall, senior policy expert at the Natural Resource Defense Council. "The [oil and gas] industry has been trying to influence where the Bureau of Land Management goes with this rule and in the past has been fairly successful in getting some rules weakened."
Draft rules on fracking released by the Department of the Interior in May 2012 proposed requiring companies who operate on public lands to disclose the formulations of their frack fluids, which contain water, sand and small amounts of chemicals. They also included rules requiring operators to ensure frack fluids don't escape from wellheads during fracking, and better management of frack fluids that flow back to the surface.
But amid intense backlash from the oil and gas industry, which argued among other things that the mix of chemicals used in frack fluids is proprietary information and releasing them would put firms at a competitive disadvantage, the Obama administration is revisiting the draft rules. This move has invited a flurry of lobbying efforts seeking looser regulation on drilling and exploration activities.
Proponents of fracking say the controversial extraction technique has transformed the United States from an energy-poor country into a leading oil and gas producer. It has fueled the creation of thousands of jobs, revitalized crumbling coal towns and injected millions of dollars into the economy. It's also revived the concept of "Made in America" as cheap natural gas has fueled a manufacturing renaissance.
But some environmentalists fear the lure of more jobs and tax revenues from the booming oil and gas industry could ultimately outweigh concerns that hydraulic fracturing could contaminate groundwater and have other unintended environmental impacts. While some states have fracking regulations, they vary vastly if they exist at all, according to experts, prompting lawsuits and bans of the practice around the country. Earlier this month, a county in New Mexico banned all oil and gas extraction, arguing state laws didn't do enough to protect communities. Across the country in Dryden, N.Y., residents won a two-year legal battle in early May, which allows the town to ban the practice within city limits.
The growing discord is leading some critics to call for a national standard when it comes to regulating the technique.
"State [regulations] really vary quite widely, which is why we need a national model and standard in place," Mall says, adding that as many as 30 states have public lands that could potentially be leased to oil and gas producers. "It would give some minimum standards and a base. These are public resources that belong to the American people."