'Fracking': Did Energy Department report clear up controversy?

According to the US panel, 'fracking' to release gas deposits in shale can be done in an environmentally responsible way. The industry hailed the report as refuting shrill critics, but environmentalists decried 'advocacy-based science' by a panel tilted toward the industry.

By , Staff writer

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” to release vast supplies of natural gas trapped in shale deposits can be conducted in an environmentally responsible way, a federal energy panel has concluded, but only if major steps are taken, including greater transparency by the gas-drilling industry, the close monitoring of groundwater quality, and the adoption of rigorous emissions standards.

The Department of Energy panel – the Shale Gas Production Subcommittee – created in May at the direction of President Obama to study the controversial fracking procedure, released its findings in a report early Thursday.

The report was hailed by the gas industry as showing that environmental concerns about fracking were exaggerated, but it came under quick fire from environmental groups, who called the panel heavily tilted toward the oil and gas industry and accusing it of “advocacy-based science.” They said the findings could undercut environmental studies already under way.

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Fracking by natural-gas drilling companies has expanded rapidly, contributing to a dramatic rise in so-called “unconventional” natural-gas production – from about 2 percent of America's gas supply a decade ago to about 30 percent today.

The gas-rich Marcellus shale beds lying beneath New York, Pennsylvania, and other parts of the Northeast could supply trillions of cubic feet of natural gas for decades. But the process involves pumping tons of chemicals and sand into the ground under high pressure, which critics say can pollute groundwater and increase air pollution.

Areas of concern identified by the federal panel included: methane and chemical pollution of groundwater; air pollution; disruption of communities; and cumulative impacts on the environment.

Tensions between the gas industry and local communities have been especially high in Colorado, Texas, and Pennsylvania, where fracking has already been blamed for contaminating drinking water and other groundwater and for polluting the air.

Methane levels were, for instance, found to be 17 times higher in groundwater near areas where shale-gas fracking wells had been drilled in Pennsylvania than in areas where no gas drilling had occurred, according to a peer-reviewed Duke University study of groundwater wells in Pennsylvania and New York earlier this year. Excess methane in water makes the water undrinkable.

Controversy accelerated in recent years when some companies dumped millions of gallons of fracking wastewater into creeks or into municipal sewage systems that were not designed to remove harmful chemicals and other elements.

Into that furor stepped Mr. Obama in May, calling on Energy Secretary Stephen Chu to convene a panel to conduct a 90-day study of the issue as part of the president's “Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future,” an overarching White House plan to curb US oil dependence and shift toward clean energy industries. Shale gas is considered by some to be a “bridge fuel” with about half the carbon dioxide emissions of coal.

“As shale gas grows and becomes an increasingly important part of our nation’s energy supply, it is crucial to bring a better understanding of the environmental impacts – both current and potential – and ensure that they are properly addressed,” John Deutch, chairman of the Energy Department panel, said in a statement.

“The current output of shale gas and its potential for future growth emphasize the need to assure that this supply is produced in an environmentally sound fashion, and in a way that meets the needs of public trust,” added Mr. Deutch, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and now a professor of chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Better data will help the industry “focus its investments, give the public the information it needs to effectively engage, and help regulators identify and address the most important problems,” Deutch continued. “We’re issuing a call for industry action, but we are not leaving it to industry alone.”

To ensure that groundwater and air quality are not harmed by the innovative drilling technique ­– which involves injecting millions of gallons of water mixed with chemicals deep into the earth, the study said the industry must adopt industry “best practices.”

Key recommendations include:

• Conducting baseline measurements at each drilling site to establish the existing water quality in an area before drilling begins – and conducting continuous measurements of water quality throughout the development of the fracture well.

• Requiring companies to disclose the chemicals in fracturing fluid that are being injected into the ground. Drilling companies have so far mostly refused to disclose chemical composition under an exemption to environmental laws granted by Congress, claiming the formulas are proprietary secrets. Still, the panel recommends keeping “an exception for genuinely proprietary information” from the federal Safe Water Drinking Act disclosure requirements.

• Conducting a federal lifecycle analysis of “the overall greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas operations throughout the lifecycle of natural gas use in comparison to other fuels.”

• Adopting rigorous emissions standards for new and existing sources of methane, air toxics, and other air pollutants resulting from natural-gas exploration and production.

• Setting up a database and website to collect accurate information on shale gas development and share it with the public.

From the start, the report and the panel that produced it have been hammered by environmental groups, activists, and scientists.

Some critics noted that the panel findings could undercut results of a major study of fracking's impact by the Environmental Protection Agency due next year. Others cited current and former ties of six of the seven panel members to the oil and gas industry. Deutch, for instance, 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 to Mr. Chu Wednesday in anticipation of 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.”

Gas industry groups said the report showed that critics have been shrill and the environmental threats vastly overblown.

“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.”

Several activists and environmentalists said the report was suspect, at best.

“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,” said Barbara Arrindell, director of Damascus Citizens for Sustainability, a Delaware River Basin citizen advocacy group in a statement.

But Gwen Lachelt, director of Earthworks’ Oil & Gas Accountability Project, an environmental group focused on the issue, said the report was better than expected. Yet she, too, noted that “Americans would not be fully protected” until the natural-gas industry’s exemptions from key federal environmental laws are removed.

“While today’s report outlines several helpful steps to reduce the environmental costs of natural gas drilling, it is unfortunate that the subcommittee stopped short of calling for the closure of a key loophole in the Safe Drinking Water Act and other environmental laws, leaving communities living amidst the shale gas boom at risk.” Ms. Lachelt said in a statement.

“The subcommittee’s recommendations offer an historic opportunity for the president and our federal agencies to hold the natural gas industry to the highest standards.”

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