Love, hate and indifference for the new shale fracking study

A new report from the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board’s Shale Gas Production Subcommittee is being both praised and denigrated by a range of industry and environmental groups, as well as garnering a range of interpretations from the media.

The report, which we wrote about here, was called for by Energy Secretary Stephen Chu in May as a 90-day look at hydraulic fracturing and ways to lessen its environmental impact.

The Environmental Defense Fund, whose President Fred Krupp sat on the panel, stressed that the report called for “strong regulation and effective enforcement” in order to ensure the safe and sustainable development of America’s onshore natural gas resources.

“The subcommittee’s recommendations won’t solve every problem overnight,” Krupp said. “But if implemented, they would make real progress toward developing this abundant energy source in ways that safeguard public health and the environment. Rigorous, well-designed standards and improved transparency and disclosure can help ensure that shale gas is developed responsibly now and in the future.”

Earthworks, a grassroots environmental group, said “the subcommittee’s report was stronger than expected” in its call for immediate actions to measure, monitor and reduce air and water pollution.

But Gwen Lachelt, director of Earthworks’ Oil & Gas Accountability Project, said Americans “will 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.” said Lachelt. “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.”

Dan Whitten, vice president of strategic communications for America’s Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA), said the group was particularly pleased that the study called for a stronger role for the State Review of Oil and Natural Gas Environmental Regulations (STRONGER), a partnership between the EPA and industry to improve oversight at the state level.

“The report also reinforces ANGA’s prior commitment to disclosure of hydraulic fracturing fluids through the state-based GWPC registry, FracFocus.org,” Whitten said.

Barry Russell, CEO of The Independent Petroleum Association of America, which represents the companies that drill most of the country’ oil and natural gas wells, said the report reaffirms the industry view that the current state and federal regulatory system is effective in protecting the public.

“While the Report makes a number of recommendations, these recommendations are largely directed at improving public knowledge about development and enhancing the effectiveness of the current management of shale gas development environmental risks,” he said.

“IPAA hopes that the Subcommittee’s efforts will help shift shale gas development discussions toward real issues that need to be addressed.”

The American Petroleum Institute, however, was quite a bit more critical of the report. In an interview this morning, API’s Erik Milito said the report didn’t give the industry enough credit for what it is already doing to ensure safe operations, and it didn’t stress the success of the current regulatory regime.

He noted that API has already developed best practices for well integrity, for example. Milito also notes the report is incorrect when it says proposed EPA regulations for drilling air quality controls aren’t aimed at a broad enough range of emissions.

A panel recommendation to reduce well site emissions by using natural gas-fueled trucks and drilling rigs is also unrealistic and misinformed, Milito says.

“If the panel had an industry representative on it might have avoided those kinds of errors,” he said.

Milito said claims from environmental groups that the panel had too many ties to industry was “a bit ridiculous.”

“You have to recognize that the environmental NGOs had a representative on the panel (NDF’s Fred Krupp),” Milito said. “And you could say anyone has strong ties to the industry if they have a 401(k) or pension plan.”

Media coverage of the report was far from identical, likely due to the many recommendations, facets and caveats of the report.

E2 Wire’s headline touts the recommendation for disclosing fracking fluids, and even calls the recommendation “likely more controversial” than other calls in the report for more monitoring and sharing of a wide range of data on shale gas development.

The Associated Press also led with the idea of frac fluid disclosure but quickly got to the point that there were other more pressing environmental concerns that needed to be addressed.

Bloomberg’s story on the report stressed the potential environmental hazards part of the report.

The Financial Times focused on a message that the gas industry will continue to face opposition unless it does a better job of addressing the public’s concerns.

The committee warned that these “serious environmental impacts … need to be prevented, reduced and, where possible, eliminated as soon as possible”. It added: “Absent effective control, public opposition will grow, thus putting continued production at risk.”

And the New York Times’ piece stresses the call for more regulations on the process, while being sure to credit itself for the creation of the panel in the first place.

My story on the report was shaped in large part on the two interviews I was able to do with panel members, John Deutch and Stephen Holditch. My conversation with them affirmed an initial impression I had from reading the report: 1. that the recommendations had less to do with hydraulic fracturing itself and more to do with the general procedures of drilling and completions and, 2. that the emissions issues around drilling and production were much greater than industry (and likely regulators) realized.

The focus that some news outlets put on frac fluid disclosure recommendation struck me as somewhat irrelevant. It’s been known for years there can be hazardous chemicals in the frac mixes, companies have started to disclose them voluntarily and more states (starting with Texas) are requiring disclosure. When Texas lawmakers require something of the oil and gas industry, it’s pretty safe to say the controversy is nearly over.

11 Comments

  1. Sue

    Yes, by all means bring it on, toxic chemical cocktail, poisoned water table, WOOHOO! Who needs water anyway.

    #1
  2. Trail Trash

    The report backs up what I have been saying on these forums for a long time now. The real risk to fresh water aquifers is not fracing, but improperly plugged or abandoned wells. Water wells in particular.

    #2
  3. Chris

    Hey Sue, the sky is falling, the sky is falling…

    #3
  4. orangemen78

    You hear the word “fracking” and it sounds like a curse word. Some of these enviromental groups have not been educated on what exactly happens. Before they scream they need to be educated on what is involved.

    #4
  5. Trail Trash

    Orangeman78, I’ve thought that part of the problem is that “fracing” sounds so simular to “fragging”.

    #5
  6. Jim

    Sue, please give us some details on this “toxic cocktail” you keep talking about. Also, I assume you live in a cave and dont own a car.

    #6
  7. NoWhining

    Hard to get excited about junk science premised from the sky is falling — where is the environmental disaster from the practice of hydraulic fracturing over the last 50 years. Don’t see it.

    #7
  8. cannedspaghetti

    The fracking controversy was all bogus as long as it was hillbillies in Appalachia but as soon as the republicans north of Dallas got hit it suddenly became important

    #8
  9. Mark from Louisiana

    Earthworks a grassroots environmental group…yea right, it’s funded by George Soros who doesn’t want America to access it’s natural gas. That’s why he has a Billion dollars invested in natural gas in New Guinea.
    Drilling permits taking a long time for drilling in the gulf? The folks that approve the permits have been in New Guinea helping them establish a permitting system.

    #9
  10. hunter

    The conclusion of this report was written long before any study was done.
    The time spent on the study and the evidence, which does not support the conclusion, was just a pro forma effort to fool journalists and those not paying attention.
    Why would anyone reporting on energy quote an environmental group for something beyond news about what the NGO is next planning to do to hurt Americans?

    #10
  11. bg

    What a joke. Obstructionist environmental groups have used their tentacles to reach farther and faster with social media, slick false blogs, and media spots. Gullible New York and Mass residents raised on hate of the petroleum industry combined with an 8th-grade science education are the easiest intellectual targets I have ever seen.

    The largest threats to shallow groundwater quality are domestic wastewater disposal along with the minor smattering of historic land disposal of industrial wastes.

    Natural gas drilling and production is not a threat to human health and the environment. Buying non-North American petroleum is a threat to our economic and national security.

    #11