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Start Spreading the News: Shale Gas 90-Day Report Released

by Bill Chameides | August 17th, 2011
posted by Wendy Graber (Researcher)

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Marcellus shale gas drill site in Pennsylvania. (Ruhrfisch)
Marcellus shale gas drill site in Pennsylvania. (Ruhrfisch)

A government panel urges caution, public poll says full steam ahead.

The combination of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) has flung the shale gas door wide open. In 2001 shale gas made up less than two percent of the nation’s natural gas supply; today it is close to 30 percent. The U. S. Energy Information Administration projects that that percentage will grow to almost 50 percent by 2035. (Natural gas is currently responsible for about one-fourth of the US energy supply.)

But our pursuit of shale gas has also led to concerns about the environmental impacts from shale gas production. (See here, here, here, and here.) In recognition of these concerns on the one hand and the potential economic benefits of shale gas on the other, President Obama asked [pdf] “Secretary of Energy Steven Chu to form a subcommittee of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB) to make recommendations to address the safety and environmental performance of shale gas production.”  In turn Secretary Chu appointed a subcommittee of seven (of which three are academics), and asked that it provide a report outlining “immediate steps that can be taken to improve the safety and environmental performance of fracturing” within 90 days of its first meeting. A second report is due in 180 days.

Drum Roll Please

Last week, the subcommittee released its 90-day report.

The report opens with the predictable huzzahs to shale gas:

“ The U.S. shale gas resource has enormous potential to provide economic and environmental benefits for the county. Natural gas – if properly produced and transported – also offers climate change advantages because of its low carbon content compared to coal.”

“Domestic production of shale gas also has the potential over time to reduce dependence on imported oil for the United States … offer[ing] important national security benefits.”

Then it gets down to the nitty gritty. “Shale gas,” the report reads,

“must be produced in a manner that prevents, minimizes and mitigates environmental damage and the risk of accidents and protects public health and safety. Public concern and debate about the production of shale gas has grown as shale gas output has expanded… Absent effective control, public opposition will grow, thus putting continued production at risk. Moreover, … if effective environmental action is not taken today, the potential environmental consequences will grow to a point that the country will be faced a more serious problem.”

The Subcommittee Identified 4 Specific Environmental Concerns

  1. Contamination of drinking water from methane and chemicals used in fracturing fluids;
  2. Air pollution;
  3. Community disruption during shale gas production; and
  4. Cumulative adverse impacts that intensive shale production can have on communities and ecosystems.

The Recommendations

It recommended some immediate steps and some longer term steps to improve safety and limit environmental impacts. A common theme in the recommendations is the need for immediate and continued sharing of information between industry, regulators, and the public.  Of course to share information, it has to be collected and so there are also a number of recommendations on the need for improved data collection through all phases of shale gas production.

A few other recommendations that caught my eye include:

  1. The elimination of diesel as a component in hydraulic fracturing fluidsYou may recall that diesel’s presence in fracking fluids has been controversial for some time.
  2. The call for a thorough assessment of the life cycle or cradle-to-grave greenhouse gas emissions of shale gas.  To date the data is pretty thin and this has fueled the controversy of whether shale gas is a suitable bridge fuel.
  3. A call for studies to confirm the validity of the Duke study by Osborne et al that found shale gas methane in drinking water wells in Pennsylvania; a study the subcommittee characterized as “credible.”

The Report’s Reception

The reviews of the report have been mixed. Some found it too tilted in favor industry – accepting that fracking was inevitable and the only option was to try to make it as safe as possible.  A number of these critics opined that the members of the subcommittee were too closely allied with industry interests. (Others (of course) have stated the opposite view—that the subcommittee doesn’t have enough industry representation.)

The New York Times, on the other hand, found the report to be a good deal more pointed in it’s assessment of the industry’s performance, stating that: “Although President Obama’s “fracking” panel offered few specifics today on how to make shale gas drilling safer, it delivered a warning to the shale gas drilling industry: Clean up your act or your business could suffer.”

The Empire State Weighs In

Meanwhile as the (fracking) battle of words on the “fracking” panel’s report rages among industry and environmental experts, one has to wonder how this is playing among the public. An answer may be found in a recent poll of New Yorkers. When asked which view matched their own, whether drilling should proceed because of its economic benefit versus not proceed due to fear of environmental impacts, voters chose drilling, albeit by a slim 47 to 42 percent margin.  But the folks living where the fracking would occur – who stand to make the most money but also suffer the environmental consequences – were pretty conclusively in favor of fracking by a margin of 51 to 39 percent. It was only in New York City where a majority (by a 50 to 38 percent margin) responded in favor of the environmen
t.  Not so surprising when you consider where the City’s drinking water comes from.

So if fracking can make it there, can it make it anywhere?

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