‘Fracking’ foes put industry on the defensive

Anyone scoring the ongoing debate over hydraulic fracturing would notice that critics of the controversial oil and natural gas extraction process have lately put a few points on the board.

They include two new studies from major universities that cast fresh doubt on emissions and potential water contamination from the process, and the announcement this month of a new Energy Department panel that will make recommendations on making it safer and cleaner.

The recent activity has put the oil and gas industry on the defensive at times and provided critics of hydraulic fracturing, often called “fracking,” with more ammunition as they push for tougher regulation.

“The next order of business is going to have to be holding politicians’ feet to the fire,” said Tyson Slocum, director of the energy program at Public Citizen, a watchdog group in Washington.

But while industry representatives acknowledge that the opposition has gotten the public’s attention, they do not see this as a tide-turning moment in the debate.

“From a substance point of view, I’m not sure we’ve seen the other side advance the ball down the field as far as you might think,” said Chris Tucker, who runs an industry-backed website called Energy in Depth that attempts to refute many of the leading arguments against hydraulic fracturing. “If anything, it’s a teachable moment because now we have a captive audience.”

In hydraulic fracturing, millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals are injected into a well at high pressure to create multiple fractures in the rock and free trapped gas or oil. Though the industry has used the process for decades, it has come under more scrutiny recently as producers push into shale rock formations estimated to hold enough natural gas to meet U.S. demand for 100 years.

The past few months alone have seen an onslaught of high-profile inquiries and critiques. A New York Times investigation in March found lax regulation in Pennsylvania that allows toxic wastewater from hydraulic fracturing to enter public waterways.

In April, a paper by scientists at Cornell University argued that shale gas — touted as a cleaner alternative to coal — could actually be a worse contributor to climate change because of methane that leaks into the air during hydraulic fracturing.

This month, Duke University scientists published a report that found dangerously high levels of methane in drinking water wells located near shale gas wells in Pennsylvania and New York.

The latter recalled hotly debated scenes from the Oscar-nominated documentary Gasland, which showed homeowners in Colorado and Wyoming igniting tap water they said contained natural gas that seeped into aquifers after hydraulic fracturing.

The Duke study arrived around the same time Pennsylvania regulators fined major U.S. shale gas producer Chesapeake Energy $900,000 for alleged contamination of water supplies after the company worked in the gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation.

Industry has taken issue with the findings in both studies, in some cases dismissing them outright. It maintains that hydraulic fracturing is time-tested and safe.

“There is no question in my mind that natural gas can be developed in a way that’s acceptable to the landowner and those that have concerns,” said Marvin Odum, Royal Dutch Shell’s top U.S. executive, in a recent interview with the Chronicle.

But it’s also clear that the industry is beginning to feel pressure to answer its critics.

Exxon Mobil Corp., for instance, just began a campaign aimed at dispelling the notion that shale gas development threatens the environment or public health. The campaign includes advertisements and town hall meetings in areas where shale exploration is taking place. Other producers, oil service providers and trade associations also are speaking up more forcefully.

“I think the balance has come down on, this is an issue we need to engage on,” said Matt Armstrong, an attorney with Bracewell & Giuliani in Washington who represents a number of U.S. oil and gas companies.

With both sides digging in, this could be the year the debate reaches a crescendo. But critics of fracturing acknowledge that renewed scrutiny still may not be enough to move lawmakers.

Legislation before Congress, known as the FRAC Act, would require more disclosures by oil companies on fluids used in hydraulic fracturing and bring the process under federal environmental laws, rather than leaving it to the states to regulate. After debuting in 2009, it was reintroduced in March, but it still faces an uncertain future.

In Texas, a measure that would require companies to disclose chemicals used in the process has passed the state Senate and House in slightly different forms, and a conference committee will have to try to reconcile the two bills. Environmental regulators in Michigan approved new rules announced Wednesday that would require energy companies to meet additional requirements for public disclosure and protecting water resources. And many eyes will be on the Environmental Protection Agency, which plans a report on hydraulic fracturing next year that could spur regulation.

Meantime, critics will continue to push for change and industry will be bracing for what’s next. “The good news, if there is any, is that we have answers,” said Tucker, with Energy in Depth. “We don’t have to ignore the phone and hide under the bed.”

Ronnie Crocker contributed to this report.