Natural gas fracking needs to be monitored, panel says
The assessment was the Obama administration's first major pronouncement on the coast-to-coast shale gas boom that has raised concerns about the risks to underground water supplies from the chemicals injected into subterranean rock to unlock natural gas.
Fracking has raised concerns in areas rich with shale gas that drinking water may become contaminated by the chemicals, which include benzene, hydrochloric acid, formaldehyde and methanol.
The energy industry has maintained that fracking is safe and fracking advocates say there has been no direct proof of drinking-water contamination.
The report came from an expert panel appointed by Energy Secretary Steven Chu. The panel’s chairman, John M. Deutch, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and former CIA director under President Clinton, said he was optimistic about the report’s potential effect.
“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 whose members include 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 Assn. of America, a trade association.
Still, the report noted that there was an urgency to addressing environmental issues. The report identifies four main concerns: possible water pollution from chemicals used in fracking and from methane gas released by the process; air pollution from methane and emissions from equipment used in gas production; potential disruption to communities and the cumulative adverse effects on their ecology.
The panel recommended that companies measure and disclose what’s in the water throughout the production process and called on them to also disclose the chemicals they inject into the ground, unless the mix is “genuinely proprietary.” It also called for monitoring and reducing emissions at gas production sites and for making some areas off-limits to gas extraction.
-- Neela Banerjee
Photo: A Halliburton rig drills for Shell Exploration & Production in Pinedale, Wyo., using hydraulic fracturing. Credit: Los Angeles Times