DOE Advisory Group Report on Shale Gas Urges Better Regulation, More Disclosure

Turn to the nation's most objective and informative daily environmental news resource to learn how the United States and key players around the world are responding to the environmental...

An Energy Department advisory panel issued draft recommendations Aug. 11 for improved environmental protection and safety in shale gas drilling and production, calling for more disclosure of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, better monitoring of water use during drilling, and control of air emissions.

The panel's draft report also stressed the need for an industry-led system of spreading best practices with continuous improvements.

While the report recommended more regulation and oversight of hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking,” it did not suggest that Safe Drinking Water Act rules be applied, as some environmental advocates want. Fracking is largely exempt from regulation under the drinking water law.

The report, written by the Natural Gas Subcommittee of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board, will be discussed by the full advisory board during a public teleconference Aug. 15. Pending the board's approval, the report will go to Energy Secretary Steven Chu on Aug. 18.

The report has been dubbed the Ninety-Day Report because the subcommittee was asked to report within 90 days of its first meeting April 18 on “immediate steps” that can be taken to improve the safety and environmental performance of fracking. The subcommittee is scheduled to issue an additional report on the subject in another 90 days.

Separately, the Environmental Protection Agency is preparing to conduct a study of the risks posed by hydraulic fracturing to drinking water (102 DEN A-10, 5/26/11).

More Public Information Sought

Environmental activists have expressed strong reservations about natural gas drilling in general, and hydraulic fracturing in particular, while advocating more use of renewable energy resources. The draft report did not suggest slowing, much less stopping, shale gas development, but it did recommend a variety of enhanced safeguards to allow for development of the “enormous potential” of U.S. shale gas.

“The Subcommittee shares the prevailing view that the risk of fracturing fluid leakage into drinking water sources through fractures made in deep shale reservoirs is remote,” the report said. “Nevertheless, the Subcommittee believes there is no economic or technical reason to prevent public disclosure of all chemicals in fracturing fluids, with an exception for genuinely proprietary information.”

The report recommended creation of a national database for pooling information on shale gas drilling and production. The database would link “as many sources of public information as possible” and would serve multiple purposes—satisfying the public's interest in the subject, helping regulators assess trends in enforcement activities, and helping industry analyze data to identify effective practices.

Existing Databases Noted

The report praised some existing database programs. One is the “State Review of Oil and Natural Gas Environmental Regulation,” or “STRONGER,” compiled by state regulators, industry, and interested stakeholders. Another is, a relatively new website jointly operated by the Ground Water Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission and serving as a voluntary chemical registry.

But the report said FracFocus is too limited by its reliance on material safety data sheets, which are limited to chemicals deemed hazardous in an occupational setting under standards of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. In addition, the capabilities to search for data and aggregate data in FracFocus are limited.

Questions often arise over whether methane contamination of a water well has a natural origin or is escaping from a gas well. The report recommended measurements of nearby water quality in advance of drilling to establish an objective baseline on contaminants in drinking water wells. But it also acknowledged that access to private wells for testing often is very limited.

Industry Says Recommendations ‘Deficient'

Initial response from industry was critical. “The committee's recommendations are deficient, in large part because the committee failed to adequately acknowledge existing programs and rules,” the American Petroleum Institute said in a statement issued Aug. 11.

The report “called for new air emission standards when comprehensive EPA rules already are in place or are being revised,” the group said. “It recommended reduction in use of diesel engines, oblivious or dismissive of the practical and economic considerations that require their use. And it ignored consideration of the potential benefits and costs of new rules.”

The reference to diesel engines drew attention to the report's recommendation that field equipment be converted from diesel to natural gas or electric power where available, and as soon as practicable.

Praise for ‘Nuanced' Report

On the other hand, Ben Grumbles, president of the nonprofit group Clean Water America Alliance, said the report is a thoughtful and “nuanced” work that can serve as a “solid roadmap” for policymakers.

Grumbles, a former Environmental Protection Agency assistant administrator for water, called particular attention to the report's recommendations on better tracking of water use at each step through the full cycle of use. The additional monitoring of water use will raise legitimate questions about cost and practicality, he said, but he nevertheless expressed approval of the idea of enhanced monitoring.

“It's important to measure the water footprint of energy production,” he said.

It also is interesting to note what is not in the report, Grumbles said, pointing out that it makes no recommendation to regulate all hydraulic fracturing under the Safe Drinking Water Act, through that law's Underground Injection Control (UIC) program.

Federal regulation under SDWA is only required for hydraulic fracturing when diesel oil is used in fracturing fluids. The report recommended that diesel be eliminated as an additive in fracturing fluids. Other refined oil products can be substituted for diesel, the report said.

Grumbles also noted that while the report called for better regulation, it did not attempt to wade into the federal-versus-state debate in terms of which regulators should take the lead.

EPA is preparing guidance on regulation of hydraulic fracturing when diesel is used (153 DEN A-7, 8/9/11).

Concern for Air Emissions

The report also put a heavy emphasis on controlling air pollution. The subcommittee “believes that companies should be required, as soon as practicable, to measure and disclose air pollution emissions, including greenhouse gases, air toxics, ozone precursors and other pollutants,” the report said. “Such disclosure should include direct measurements wherever feasible.”

Industry and regulators should “immediately expand efforts to reduce air emissions,” the report said. It cited Wyoming's emission rules as a “good starting point” but also stressed the responsibility of EPA, which is in the process of amending its regulations for air pollution from oil and gas operations (146 DEN A-2, 7/29/11).

The report called for creation of an industry organization dedicated to continuous improvement of best practices “through development of standards, diffusion of these standards, and assessing compliance among its members.”

By Alan Kovski  

The Ninety-Day Report of the Energy Department's Natural Gas Subcommittee on shale gas production is available at .  

Additional information on the report on shale gas production is available at .