EARTHWORKS

Panel recommends greater monitoring of effects of natural gas extraction

Obama's first assessment of fracking

College Times | Neela Banerjee

August 11, 2011
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WASHINGTON — A federally appointed panel recommended greater disclosure and monitoring of the environmental effects of extracting natural gas from shale formations, marking the Obama administration's first broad assessment of the controversial practice.

A coast-to-coast shale gas boom has raised concerns about the risks to underground water supplies from hydraulic fracturing, which involves mixing sand, water and chemicals and injecting them into shale formations at high pressure to unlock the gas. Environmental groups and local residents and politicians in areas rich with shale gas have said that hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," could lead to contamination of the water table. The energy industry insists that fracking is safe.

The report, issued by an expert panel appointed by Energy Secretary Steven Chu, is the first effort by the Obama administration to cut through the acrimonious debate about tapping vast natural gas reservoirs held inside shale. It remains unclear whether the report, pulled together in 90 days at Chu's behest, will calm the debate. It's also uncertain if and how its recommendations would be implemented. The administration has not seen it yet. And given the political battles over the environment, little may go forward.

Still, the panel's chairman, John Deutch, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and former director of the Central Intelligence Agency under President Bill Clinton, said he was optimistic about the report's potential impact.

"Given the report's tone and common-sense advice, it could influence industry and regulators' attitudes," Deutch said. It offered something for almost every side, said some environmental groups and industry representatives. "The report urges industry to come clean and for scientists and regulators to do their jobs," said Benjamin Grumbles, president of the Clean Water America Alliance, an association of municipal water districts and private industry.

The report won over some industry observers by eschewing the view common among environmental groups that shale gas production is inherently dangerous.

"On the whole, this is another example of a group of experts that has essentially concluded that environmental risk exists in shale gas production but that those risks are well-managed," said Lee Fuller, vice president of government relations for the Independent Petroleum Association of America, a trade association.

Still, the report noted that there was an urgency to addressing environmental issues. The four main concerns the report identified were possible pollution of water by chemicals used in fracking and from methane gas underground being released by the fracturing process; air pollution from methane and emissions from equipment and vehicles used in gas production; the potential disruption to communities and the accumulative adverse effects on their ecology.

The report recommended that companies measure and disclose what's in the water throughout the production process. It also called for them to reveal the chemicals they inject into the ground, unless the mix is "genuinely proprietary." The report called for the monitoring and reduction of air emissions at gas production sites, and for the preservation of some areas as off-limits to gas extraction.

"Quite frankly, this is better than we expected." said Jennifer Krill, executive director for Earthworks, an environmental group. "This report challenges the Department of Interior, the EPA and other federal agencies to hold the natural gas industry to the highest standards and move forward with a comprehensive plan to protect clean air, water and sensitive areas from drilling impacts."

Another report is due out in three months, and will be based in large part upon the reaction to this one, Deutch said.

Tagged with: obama, natural gas, hydraulic fracturing, fracking

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