Federal Fracking Report Inspires Skepticism

A federal energy panel has concluded that hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking) can be safe, but only if rigorous emission standards, close monitoring of groundwater quality, and other safeguards are employed. The energy industry is touting the Shale Gas Production Subcommittee’ report as a ringing endorsement of fracking, but environmentalists are criticizing the panel for being too closely tied to the industry.

The Shale Gas Production Subcommittee was convened by Secretary of Energy Steven Chu at the direction of President Barack Obama to study the controversial method of natural gas extraction. According to a statement from the subcommittee, shale gas production has rapidly grown to nearly 30 percent of natural gas production in the United States. In fracking, a cocktail of water, sand and chemicals is injected into the ground at high pressure to shake loose gas and oil deposits. Opponents of fracking are concerned that this type of natural gas drilling could lead to pollution of vital drinking water sources, either through the release of naturally-occurring hazardous substances or as a result of spills or leaks involving fracking fluid or fracking wastewater.

Among other things, environmentalists are worried that the panel’s seeming endorsement of fracking will undercut results of a major study of its impact by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency due next year, according to The Christian Science Monitor. Others were concerned that six of seven panel members have ties to the oil and gas industry, including its chairman, John Deutch, who currently sits on the board of a company that would like to export natural gas.

“The committee appears to be performing advocacy-based science and seems to have already concluded that hydraulic fracturing is safe,” scientists at 22 universities in 13 states said in a letter sent to Energy Secretary Chu one day before the report’s release. “We believe that the best science should be done first to determine whether increased unconventional natural gas production is sufficiently safe – from the individual water well to climate impact and that policy should follow.”

“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,” Barbara Arrindell, director of the Delaware River Basin advocacy group, Damascus Citizens for Sustainability, said in statement, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

On the other hand, the industry is quite pleased with the panel’s findings. “The report stands in stark contrast to the strident, hysterical demands for moratoria on hydraulic fracturing,” Barry Russell, president and CEO of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, said in a statement. “IPAA believes that the report presents a useful starting point for further discussions.”

Their report, released Thursday, does point to several areas of concerns related to fracking, including: methane and chemical pollution of groundwater; air pollution; disruption of communities; and cumulative impacts on the environment. To ensure that fracking is done in a responsible way, the panel calls for “industry leadership in improving environmental performance, underpinned by strong regulations and rigorous enforcement, evolving to meet the identified challenges.” It makes four key recommendations:

• Making information about shale gas production operations more accessible to the public. Among other things, the panel calls for full disclosure of fracking chemicals, and says there are no economic or technical reason to prevent public disclosure. The report also recommends the establishment of a national database of all public information made about shale gas that would permit easier access by all interested parties.

• Immediate and longer-term actions to reduce environmental and safety risks of shale gas operations, with a particular focus on protecting air and water quality. This includes measures to reduce emissions on air pollutants, ozone precursors and methane as quickly as practicable, as well as prompt adoption of standards to reduce emissions of all air contaminants. It also urges the adoption of a systemic approach to water management based on consistent measurement and public disclosure.

• Creation of a Shale Gas Industry Operation organization committed to continuous improvement of best operating practices. The report envisions the creation of a national organization, with external stakeholders, dedicated to continuous improvement of best practice through the development and diffusion of standards and the assessment of member compliance. The organization would likely work through regional subgroups.

• Research and development (R&D) to improve safety and environmental performance. The report recommends that the administration set an appropriate mission for shale gas R&D and level funding, with a particular focus on efficiency of water use and other improvements to enhance environmental objectives.

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