Jewell vows to make energy development on public lands cleaner

A long-delayed fracking rule will be announced within days.


Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has outlined her plans to set the rules of the road for future energy development on public lands that will help protect the planet for her grandchildren’s generation.

“My responsibility to my grandchildren’s generation is at the top of my mind with every decision we make. That’s why I’m determined to help make energy development safer and more environmentally sound in the next two years,” Jewell said Tuesday to a standing-room only crowd of energy lobbyists, and environmentalists at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.

The speech was her first major address on energy priorities for her department, which oversees oil and gas drilling on land and offshore, coal mining, hydropower dams and renewable development such as wind and solar.

During her nearly two years as secretary of Interior, Jewell said she has seen “the costs of a changing climate everywhere I go.” For instance, she recently visited Kivalina, Alaska, a village at risk of being wiped out by coastal erosion.

“Helping our nation cut carbon pollution should inform our decisions about where we develop, how we develop and what we develop,” said Jewell.

Her speech, however, had few specifics on how she would apply that principle to fossil fuel extraction from the hundreds of millions of acres of such resources that her department manages. But her moderation has already put her at odds with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who chairs both the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and the subcommittee that sets Interior’s budget, and who’s espoused a “no holds barred” approach to energy development.

Jewell described the “tectonic shifts” underway in American energy since 2008 that have helped the country emerge from recession: Domestic oil production surged from five million barrels to nine million barrels a day; dependence on foreign oil dipped lower than it has been in 30 years, solar power increased tenfold and wind tripled.

About a quarter of the nation’s unconventional oil and gas sits under federal and tribal lands, and within a few days, the Bureau of Land Management will announce long-delayed regulations for the industries extracting that energy, Jewell told reporters after her speech. The so-called BLM fracking rule will govern how companies conduct hydraulic fracturing.

Jewell told reporters not to expect any “radical changes” from a 2013 draft rule, which would set new requirements, including that companies disclose the chemicals they used after fracking a well.

That proposal was criticized by industry for increasing costs and overlapping with state rules. Environmental groups also critiqued it for failing to adequately protect drinking water sources or to require companies to disclose the chemicals they are using before they frack a well.

Jewell said she hopes that when the rule is announced, the public, environmental organizations and industry “will recognize that we struck the right balance” between protecting the environment and keeping American energy flowing.

“We want to reassure the public that the rules we put in place will do just that -- protect groundwater resources, while also unlocking the energy potential that we have,” she said.

Jewell peppered her speech with references to her rich career in private industry. She was CEO of Recreation Equipment Inc., better known as REI, a commercial banker and a petroleum engineer.

She said more rules concerning energy development on public lands would be on the way to update regulations that had not changed since she worked on drilling and fracking operations 30 years ago in Oklahoma.

  • A proposal released last month would better protect the sensitive Arctic environment from offshore oil and gas exploration.
  • As part of President Obama’s plan to reduce emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, BLM plans to tighten standards for methane leaks from oil and gas operations on federal and tribal lands.
  • Also in the works is a regulation that would give the BLM flexibility to adjust royalty rates on oil and gas.

Next up could be the coal resources on federal lands.

“I think most Americans would be surprised to know that coal companies can make a winning bid for about a dollar a ton to mine taxpayer-owned coal,” she said.

Jewell talked in vague terms about modernizing the coal program. But some environmentalists in the audience wished Jewell had promoted keeping federal coal resources in the ground, because burning coal is a major contributor to global warming.

“Jewell holds a critical position in determining how much fossil fuel we take out of the ground in addition to how we take it out of the ground,” said Sharon Buccino, director of the land and wildlife program at Natural Resources Defense Council. 

When pressed after her speech about what plans she might have to make energy extraction from public lands reflect the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Jewell made it clear she has no concrete strategy yet.

“As it relates to carbon specifically, I think that’s something that we need to talk about,” Jewell told reporters. “We need to have a platform to have those discussions with the public, with stakeholders, with industry to chart a path forward. That’s not being done now. But that’s something that we’d like to facilitate at least an open discussion on.”

Elizabeth Shogren is HCN's DC Correspondent. Follow her @ShogrenE.  

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