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'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.

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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.

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“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.

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