Friday, November 11, 2011

The Department of Energy Weighs in Again on Shale Gas and Fracturing

The Shale Gas Production Subcommittee of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board has released its second, ninety-day report, which contains several important recommendations.  The report is not afraid to point fingers (at least politely), suggesting that although the EPA is currently developing Class II underground injection control permitting guidance under the Safe Drinking Water Act for fracing that uses diesel fuel, this practice should simply be banned.  Indeed, the Ground Water Protection Council, a group of state regulators, has historically urged that diesel fuel use in fracing should be "eliminated" even though it believes that "the threat to public health appears to be low."  (In the Energy Policy Act of 2005, Congress exempted fracturing--the process of injecting water and chemicals down oil and gas wells--from the definition of underground injection in the Safe Drinking Water Act.  It didn't exempt fracing that uses diesel fuel, however.)  The report also calls for a federal, interagency study of the greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas, mandatory disclosure of fracturing chemicals in a move already supported by the Department of the Interior, industry-led air emissions monitoring, efforts toward immediate air emission reductions, further study of possible methane migration to water reservoirs, and the adoption of best practices for well casing, among other recommendations.  In a particularly important suggestion, the report argues for background monitoring of water quality.  This could enable a better understanding of baseline levels of methane and other contaminants in water and the potential for improperly-cased wells to add to this contaminant mix.  The report also notes the importance of several quasi-governmental groups--the nonprofit State Review of Oil & Natural Gas Environmental Regulations (STRONGER) and the Ground Water Protection Council--and argues for increased funding for these groups.  STRONGER is a  partnership of state regulators, industry, and environmental and other public interest groups that emerged after the Environmental Protection Agency (as permitted by Congress) exempted oil and gas exploration wastes from hazardous waste regulation under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.  The group has developed guidelines for oil and gas development--particularly for the storage and disposal of wastes--and conducts reviews of state oil and gas regulation to see whether these regulations follow the guidelines.  It then suggests how regulations could improve. The Ground Water Protection Council similarly recommends best practices in oil and gas development and has recently helped to launch FracFocus, a webpage on which some energy companies voluntarily disclose the chemicals used at their fractured wells.  Nonprofit involvement won't be sufficient to address the potential effects of unconventional oil and gas development enabled by fracturing--many of which arise simply from the fact that more wells are being drilled in a big hurry--but it is an important component of improved oversight.  It's good to see the Subcommittee focusing on a range of solutions, from enhanced federal attention and research to efforts to involve industry in monitoring. 

-Hannah Wiseman

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