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,,” 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.