AOGCC hears comments on fracking regulations
Industry, public have different views on a proposed public comment period for permit applications for hydraulic fracturing
During a public hearing on March 23 the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission heard opposing views on a proposed change to state hydraulic fracturing regulations, a change mandating 10-day public comment periods for permit applications for fracking wells. The proposed regulation change came in response to a request by Bob Shavelson, executive director of Cook Inletkeeper, and followed an earlier public hearing on the topic, held Dec. 15.
During the March hearing it became evident that members of the public who are pushing the public comment concept have markedly different perspectives on the topic than does the Alaska oil and gas industry.
A right to knowTestimony from the public argued that, given what people see as the potential hazards associated with the hydraulic fracturing of wells, the public has a right to know what is proposed in a fracking operation, especially since people living near the operation have local knowledge of salient issues such as the nature and locations of local drinking water resources. And there was general criticism of the relatively short 10-day comment period that the commission has proposed, given that the typical comment period in a state public process is 30 days.
Shavelson, in testimony to the commission, also argued that the proposed regulation is too vague and that it needs to spell out factors such as the timing of public posting of an application relative to the timing of a commission decision on the application; the obligation of the commission to consider public comments; and the recourse available to a commenter if comments are ignored.
Shavelson also questioned a provision within the proposed regulation change that allows a company to redact from the public version of an application any information that the company views as business confidential. What is to stop a company redacting so much information that a public review of the application becomes meaningless, Shavelson asked.
Additional time and costIndustry representatives, including officials from ConocoPhillips, BlueCrest Energy and the Alaska Oil and Gas Association expressed concern that a public comment period would add needless time and cost to the hydraulic fracturing permitting process. The representatives argued that the commission has very rigorous hydraulic fracturing regulations that have already undergone an exhaustive public review process. The commission has the appropriate technical expertise to enforce these regulations and has demonstrated in the past that the regulations have effectively protected groundwater - adding a public comment period to the permitting process would not improve the process’s effectiveness, the industry argues.
Joshua Kindred, environmental counsel for the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, also commented that some members of the public simply oppose hydraulic fracturing in general and that opening a public comment period for these people will simply result in general statements that hydraulic fracturing is bad and dangerous. While, on the one hand it is difficult to see what benefit there might be to people making comments on permits, the comment period will introduce costly permitting delays, Kindred said. And would the public comment process open a door to litigation over the permits, he wondered.
Commissioner perspectiveCommissioner Hollis French summed up, from his perspective, the situation regarding the commission’s proposal.
French said that, given the oil industry’s universal opposition to the public comment concept, the commission is “going into the teeth of their (the industry’s) opposition.” He said that he would carefully monitor the permitting process over the next year or so, to see how the revised regulations play out, ensuring that the public has meaningful opportunities for comment on permit applications. And if industry were to abuse the use of the redaction provisions, the commission would likely take steps to address that issue, he said.
He said that he somewhat agrees with the industry view that comments on hydraulic fracturing permit applications could become a proxy debate over the pros and cons of the hydraulic fracturing process in general. French said that he would monitor comments submitted on permit applications, to assess whether the comments are pertinent to particular applications, or whether the comments express general anti-fracking views.
With regard to the 10-day comment period, versus the possibility of a 30-day period, French said that, given that it typically takes the commission about 10 days to process a permit application, setting a 10-day period should enable public commenting without slowing down the permitting process.
“I think that’s a fair balance between the industry’s need to move ahead with their plans and the public’s right to have some idea of what’s going on,” he said, also commenting that the commission would look at the comment time period if 10 days turns out to be insufficient.
French also commented an oil company has to give landowners near to a proposed fracking operation advance notice of the planned fracking. Commissioner Dan Seamount pointed out that, regardless of the regulations, anyone can comment on anything that the commission is doing.