Energy Dept. Panel to Revise Standards for Gas Extraction

New York Times
6 May 2011
By John M. Broder

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration, seeing increased domestic natural gas production as a linchpin in its long-term energy strategy, has named a panel of experts to find ways to make hydraulic fracturing, a fast-growing method of extracting natural gas, safer and cleaner.

The administration hopes to avoid the safety and regulatory breakdowns that led to the Deepwater Horizon blowout a year ago as it oversees onshore drilling using hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu has asked the panel’s seven experts, to be led by John Deutch, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and deputy defense secretary, to recommend within 90 days immediate steps to make fracking cleaner and safer.

The group will have an additional three months to come up with comprehensive safety and environmental policies for state and federal regulators who oversee gas drilling.

Mr. Chu said that he was acting at the direction of President Obama, who outlined a new energy strategy last month that calls for stepped-up domestic oil and gas production but also new rules to make the business safer.

Hydraulic fracturing involves the high-pressure injection of fluids into underground shale formations to break open natural gas pockets. The technique, which has been in limited use for decades, is expected to significantly increase recovery of domestic gas supplies and keep prices moderate for years.

But the practice also pours millions of gallons of dangerous chemicals into the ground and into wastewater treatment systems, which in some cases cannot remove all the potential toxins. There are also numerous documented cases in which fracking fluids leaked into aquifers and contaminated drinking water.

“America’s vast natural gas resources can generate many new jobs and provide significant environmental benefits,” Mr. Chu said in a statement late Thursday, “but we need to ensure we harness these resources safely.”

Within hours, House Republicans issued a press release denouncing the study as wasteful, duplicative and another example of red tape run amok. They said that fracking has been used safely for more than 60 years and that the Environmental Protection Agency already has sufficient authority to regulate it.

Mr. Deutch, a chemist, is a longtime professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has served in a number of top government posts. He is a director of Cheniere Energy, which operates a major liquefied natural gas terminal in Louisiana and a number of gas pipelines.

Other members of the panel include Stephen Holditch, chairman of the department of petroleum engineering at Texas A&M University; Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund; Kathleen McGinty, an aide to Al Gore when he was a senator and a former secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection; and Susan Tierney, former assistant secretary of energy for policy and Massachusetts secretary of environmental affairs.

Also serving are Daniel Yergin, chairman of I. H. S. Cambridge Energy Research Associates and the author of the “The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power,” a history of oil exploration; and Mark Zoback, a professor of geophysics at Stanford.