An outside panel of advisors to the Department of Energy recently recommended a suite of measures to better protect the public’s health and safety from adverse environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing of natural gas wells in shale formations. The report strikes the right balance between protecting public safety and accessing a more clean and abundant domestic source of energy. But there are several additional steps the government needs to take.
Because natural gas is generally thought to produce less carbon pollution than coal or oil, it is often viewed as a bridge fuel to a lower carbon future. But a recent study casts some doubt on that assumption. Because of that uncertainty, the Center for American Progress called for an authoritative government study of the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions of natural gas in relation to other fuels. The Department of Energy panel that released the recent report endorsed that effort.
The DOE panel also concurred with a number of other Center for American Progress recommendations, including more public disclosure of releases of toxic emissions, cradle-to-grave wastewater monitoring, and controls on fugitive methane releases. Specifically, the panel’s recommendations include:
- Rigorous standards for controlling emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases into the air during all phases of natural gas drilling and production
- Better tracking and disposal of wastewater that is produced during hydraulic fracturing
- Baseline testing of domestic water wells prior to drilling so it is easier to determine if fracking has contaminated water supplies
- Public disclosure in an online searchable database of the chemicals used in fracking, though with an exception “for genuinely proprietary information”
- Adopting best practices for well construction, including casing, cementing, and pressure management, and better well-inspection regimes
- Eliminating the use of diesel fuel in fracturing fluids
- Better communication and coordination between state and federal regulators
- More federal funding for research and development on ways to improve the environmental performance of natural gas development
- Greater efforts at all levels of government to limit the cumulative impacts of drilling on lands, wildlife, and communities
These are important steps to take toward ensuring the emerging shift to a greater reliance on natural gas is done in a prudent way that protects our health and safety. It is imperative that our nation continues to move away from its heavy reliance on coal. Even if the greenhouse benefits of natural gas turn out to be less than now assumed, gas is preferable because it produces fewer other pollutants compared to coal.
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