Draft study acknowledges public concern about environmental impacts of shale gas development but falls short of offering legal protection for communities, according to Colorado Congressman Jared Polis
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — A draft report on shale-gas drilling released this week by a federal advisory board calls for increased regulation and more disclosure, but still falls short of offering strong legal measures to ensure communities are protected from environmental impacts, including water and air pollution, said Congressman Jared Polis (D-CO).
Polis said unless the gas industry and federal regulators convert voluntary recommendations to legal requirements, communities won’t be protected from potential impacts.
“The subcommittee’s recommendations, and its acknowledgement that changes need to be made, are certainly a step in the right direction,” Polis said in a statement reacting to the draft report. “However, until legal shortcomings are fixed, and voluntary recommendations become actual requirements, communities will remain without real assurance that their air, water and health are adequately protected.”
The report comes from the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board Natural Gas Subcommittee, which was directed by President Obama to identify any immediate steps that can improve the safety and environmental performance of shale gas drilling. One of the recommendations targets a key concern among environmental advocates by calling for full disclosure of the chemicals used in fracking.
Here’s what the report had to say about disclosure:
“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. 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. While companies and regulators are moving in this direction, progress needs to be accelerated in light of public concern.”
The report acknowledges growing public concern about shale-gas impacts in this passage:
“There are serious environmental impacts underlying these concerns and these adverse environmental impacts need to be prevented, reduced and, where possible, eliminated as soon as possible. Absent effective control, public opposition will grow, thus putting continued production at risk. Moreover, with anticipated increase in U.S. hydraulically fractured wells, 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. Effective action requires both strong regulation and a shale gas industry in which all participating companies are committed to continuous improvement.”
The report also calls for a reduction in the use of diesel fuel, explaining that there is no technical or economic reason to use diesel fuel in shale gas production, and that diesel engines for surface power should be replaced with natural gas engines or electricity where available.
Additionally, the industry should, as soon as practicable, measure and disclose air pollution emissions, “including greenhouse gases, air toxics, ozone precursors and other pollutants. Such disclosure should include direct measurements wherever feasible; include characterization of chemical composition of the natural gas measured; and be reported on a public website that allows for searching and aggregating by pollutant, company, production activity and geography.”
According to the report, there is still uncertainty about the scale of methane emissions resulting from natural gas drilling. More data is needed because of methane’s potency as a greenhouse gas.
It also recommends beefing up public information about gas production, with access to current dates from state and regulatory agencies, enabling the public to study and analyze shale gas operations and results. It also calls for improved communication among state and federal regulators, and for steps to reduce air and water quality impacts.
The subcommittee also addressed the growing concern over cumulative impacts as shale gas drilling grows dramatically in some areas, calling for regional planning, studying water quality impacts at a watershed level.
Polis is a coauthor of the FRAC Act (H.R. 1084) addressing drinking water quality concerns with fracking, and the author of the Bringing Reductions to Energy’s Airborne Toxic Health Effects (BREATHE) Act (H.R. 1204) addressing air quality concerns with shale gas drilling.
The report outlines the rapid growth and potential benefits of domestic natural gas production, including less dependence on foreign energy sources, and also discusses the differences in environmental issues associated with gas drilling in different parts of the country. For example, water quality concerns are higher profile in some areas because of the differing production technologies used to develop gas resources in different rock formations.
Natural gas is also a key part of the U.S. economy, providing 25 percent of the country’s total energy. Production from shale formations has climbed to reach 30 percent of total U.S. natural gas production, bringing lower energy prices, domestic jobs.
But that growth “has also brought questions about whether both current and future production can be done in an environmentally sound fashion that meets the needs of public trust,” the report concludes.
“The Subcommittee did the right thing in undertaking a broad evaluation of problems like toxic air pollution and faulty well casings, often not considered ‘fracking,’ by the industry,” Polis said. “However, the Subcommittee shouldn’t be dismissive of water contamination directly attributed to fracking itself, with an EPA study currently underway, and recent news of just such a case.
“A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and the lack of transparency and accountability that accompany fracking is a weak link for public health and the industry’s public image,” he continued. “A key component of the FRAC Act is the full disclosure of fracking chemicals. Not only was chemical disclosure central to today’s recommendations, but the Subcommittee expressed that there is no good rationale against it.
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