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‘Fracking’ Responsibly

New Report on Hydraulic Fracturing for Natural Gas Strikes the Right Balance

An outside panel of advisors to the Department of Energy yesterday 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.

First, though, let’s review what the findings were. Though the report, prepared for Energy Secretary Steven Chu, is generally thematic and endorses no specific changes in federal laws or policies, it does call for:

  • More effective controls of air pollution associated with gas development
  • Better systems for guarding against water contamination
  • A definitive assessment of the greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas production
  • The creation of a federal database to allow the public to easily access information about natural gas production including the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking

This report by a shale gas subcommittee of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board comes against a backdrop of a massive increase in the production of natural gas from shale formations stretching from Pennsylvania to Texas, and mounting public concern over fracking and its possible pollution of public water supplies, air quality, and communities sitting above the gas deposits. The report explicitly recognizes that unless the environmental concerns are addressed, the growth of the shale gas industry could be threatened, along with its economic benefits and potential for aiding the fight against climate change by reducing the use of more polluting fuels for electricity generation and transportation.

“The public deserves assurance that the full economic, environmental and energy security benefits of shale gas development will be realized without sacrificing public health, environmental protection and safety,” the report concludes.

The subcommittee’s report contains strong recommendations that the natural gas industry voluntarily adopt best practices and continually improve its environmental and safety performance, but the panel also called for more aggressive federal and state oversight of the industry. “Effective action requires both strong regulation and a shale gas industry in which all participating companies are committed to continuous improvement,” the report states, while noting that industry’s efforts are “a complement to, not a substitute for, strong regulation and effective enforcement.” Stronger regulation, the report said, can be funded through fees, royalties, and taxes paid by industry.

The publication of the report also is important simply for happening so quickly. President Obama in March directed Secretary Chu to convene the panel, and the secretary in turn gave the seven members 90 days to advise him on “immediate steps that can be taken to improve the safety and environmental performance of fracturing.” Chaired by John Deutch, who served in senior Energy and Defense Department positions and as director of the Central Intelligence Agency, the panel was criticized by environmental activists and scientists for having close financial ties to the energy industry. Deutch, for example, is a member of the board of Cheniere Energy Inc., a Houston-based liquefied-natural-gas storage and trading company, and a former director of Schlumberger Ltd., a leading hydraulic fracturing company. He is also a trustee of the Center for American Progress. Congressional Republicans, in contrast, complained that the panel did not have enough industry representation.

Undeterred, the panel moved quickly, and with good reason. Exploitation of abundant U.S. shale gas resources has accelerated rapidly in recent years, enabled by vast improvements in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing techniques. Fracking is a process that involves high-pressure pumping of large volumes of water combined with sand and chemicals to fracture underground rock formations and release gas deposits. A decade ago, shale gas represented less than 2 percent of U.S. gas production, according to the panel’s report, but is now 30 percent. New estimates of U.S. reserves of gas now predict that a supply of more than a century is possible.

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 yesterday’s 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.

The panel’s emphasis on tougher government oversight and standards, and its push for greater industry transparency and best practices, are important. A study by the Environmental Protection Agency that is now underway may shed some more needed light on what is needed to guarantee that fracking is done safely and responsibly, and should serve as a basis for ending some of the oil and gas industry’s exemptions from the nation’s bedrock environmental laws.

Tom Kenworthy is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress where he focuses on renewable energy and environmental issues.