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DOE fracking report states obvious, little else

Monday, August 15, 2011

By Alex Rindler, EWG Government Affairs Assistant

People across the country are rightly concerned about natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing near their homes. Thanks to new technologies, the exploitation of shale gas formations has expanded rapidly and now accounts for nearly 30 percent of U.S. natural gas production. As drilling rigs pop up near populous areas, the stakes have become enormous for millions of Americans.

Shale gas extraction can mean profits for energy companies, royalties for some landowners and jobs for some.

For communities, though, it can and does translate to unsightly rigs, truck traffic, air pollution, noise and up to millions of gallons of chemical-laced wastewater, water pollution, and reports of drilling related illnesses. Property values near some drilling operations are reported to be plummeting.

Fracking exempt from most U.S. environmental laws

In a draft report issued August 11, an advisory panel on shale gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing convened by U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu seems to trivialize Americans' wariness of drillers' aggressive inroads. The panel, chaired by John Deutch, a board member of Cheniere Energy, was charged with recommending ways to make fracking safer for people and the environment. But its initial report seems more concerned with making recommendations to improve the industry's public relations messaging than anything else. It makes no mention of the real issue at hand: the fact that hydraulic fracturing enjoys seven exemptions from the nation's major environmental laws, including the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The Chu-Deutch panel says the industry can undertake measures to "reduce the environmental impacts from shale gas production." Industry, the panel says, can engage in "managing short-term and cumulative impacts on communities, land use, wildlife, and ecologies."

Such pallid language seems to assume and accept a certain amount of environmental damage. In the panel's view, the only question seems to be, how much. That's no reassurance at all for people who see their air and water quality being degraded or who see the drilling industry encroaching on once pristine landscapes.

Gas country residents don't want to hear, Well, it could be worse.

Disclosure of fracking techniques and drilling chemicals, as the panel recommends, is a good thing. But it's not enough to know how bad things are. The point is to prevent bad things from happening.

The panel acknowledges that "adverse environmental impacts need to be prevented, reduced and, where possible, eliminated as soon as possible." It says that "effective action requires both strong regulation and a shale gas industry in which all participating companies are committed to continuous improvement. "

Do we have an industry committed to environmental protection? Apparently not, in the view of the Chu-Deutch panel, which suggests, in backhanded and tortuous fashion, that the gas industry, as currently configured, cannot be trusted. Let's decode this recommendation:

The Subcommittee believes the creation of a shale gas industry production organization dedicated to continuous improvement of best practice, defined as improvements in techniques and methods that rely on measurement and field experience, is needed to improve operational and environmental outcomes.

This passage is hardly a vote of confidence in the industry. If an engineer told you that a new house must be created where your house now stands, you'd run for the door before the roof fell in. Make a whole new structure? Now? The flaws in the existing one must be pretty severe. And if that engineer said the newly-created structure would, at best, "improve...outcomes," you'd have serious second thoughts about whether it would be worth rebuilding.

Energy Department panel dominated by oil and gas interests

The panel's words are oblique and cautious, not surprising, since Deutch and five of six other panel members have current financial ties to the oil and gas industry. These individuals have extensive experience in oil and gas. They also have a direct financial interest in seeing the industry emphasize profits over protecting communities. Their call for "strong regulation" has to be taken with more than a few grains of salt.

Let's not confuse this group of people who come from the oil and gas industry with a truly independent blue-ribbon panel. If the Department of Energy does not appear to take seriously the need for this panel to be - and to be perceived as - fair, balanced, objective and representative, then the millions of people who will be impacted by shale gas development cannot count on the federal government to protect them.

Panelist labels citizens' concerns "hysteria"

At a recent public meeting at the Department of Energy's Washington headquarters, panel member Mark Zobak dismissed criticisms of shale gas drilling as "hydro-frack hysteria." Zoback is a geophysics professor at Stanford University, but that's not all. He is also a founder of GeoMechanics International, a consulting firm that advises on various oil and gas drilling problems. Baker Hughes, Inc., a $33.5 billion Houston-based oilfield services company engaged in hydraulic fracturing, acquired GeoMechanics International in 2008. As a senior advisor to Baker Hughes, Zoback can afford to be optimistic about the impact of shale gas drilling.

If the pace of natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing is to accelerate, as the energy industry and the Obama administration hope, the question is how to achieve the highest standards of safety. Balancing America's appetite for energy with people's rights to live in safety and peace is a tough challenge - and too important to be left to a favored few special interests.

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