Disclose Fracking Dangers, Federal Panel Urges

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
11 August 2011
By Erich Schwartzel

Natural gas companies should be required to disclose all chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process, according to a Department of Energy report released today that criticizes the industry for failing to fully examine the possible environmental effects of drilling.

The hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, process used to extract natural gas employs a controversial formula of chemicals that drillers have said must remain protected for competitive reasons.

But "[T]he barrier to shield chemicals based on trade secret should be set very high," said the report by the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board Shale Gas Production Subcommittee.

Fracking fluid leakage into drinking water sources remains a "remote" risk, the panel said, but "progress needs to be accelerated in light of public concern."

Public concern over drinking water contamination, air pollution and foggy information take precedent in the report, compiled after the panel completed a 90-day listening tour that included a raucous public meeting in Washington, Pa.

The committee, reporting to Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and President Barack Obama, examined best practices in shale plays across the country, including the Marcellus Shale that underlies much of Appalachia.

Prior to the report's release, critics called the panel a sham, saying the members' numerous ties to industry made a pro-drilling stance a foregone conclusion. But the 41-page report repeatedly calls out an industry the officials say hasn't explained itself or its impacts well.

Concerns over increased air pollution around a well site -- particularly an increase in methane levels -- led the committee to recommend further examination into a May 2011 study that found higher concentrations of methane in water around production sites in northern Pennsylvania.

The cited study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, found "systematic evidence for methane contamination of drinking water associated with shale gas extraction" around Susquehanna County.

"There's an awful lot we don't know about methane emissions from the entire shale gas production process," said Kathleen McGinty, a member of the panel and the former secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

The panel recommends implementing a "green completion" process that traps methane and other air contaminants before they're released.

An overall examination of the greenhouse gas effect of shale drilling should assess the industry's own carbon footprint, the report said, and drillers should work toward weaning companies off diesel-fueled machinery.

State and local authorities should also develop systems that measure water quality before drilling occurs so any change in contamination levels as a result of the process is recorded, the report said.

Regulation in place throughout the Marcellus region inspired some of the national recommendations, Ms. McGinty said.

Pennsylvania practices that track water usage led the committee to suggest drillers show "where water comes from, how much is used, how the water is changed with the addition of the frack fluids," she said.

Another idea borrowed from Pennsylvania practices concerns drilling near sensitive ecological areas, and the committee recommends 100-foot buffer zones around high-quality water areas.

To consolidate available information on shale drilling, the panel suggests an immediate $20 million be allocated to create a database on wells and the chemicals they receive.

The report is the first of two to be submitted by the committee. The next will come after another 90 days of listening to response to the first report, Ms. McGinty said.

For now, the committee stays away from suggesting which federal, state or local agents are the best candidates for implementing the suggestions and instead looks at more big-picture recommendations.

"We stayed focused on the spinach," Ms. McGinty said.

That allowed the report to allude only once to the most divisive topic in Harrisburg: whether to levy taxes or fees on the gas industry.

"Fees, royalty payments and severance taxes are appropriate sources of funds to finance these needed regulatory activities," the report said.

Erich Schwartzel: eschwartzel@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1455.