GAS WELL DRILLING: Some of the equipment used in hydraulic fracturing assists in well stimulation or techniques to optimize well performance. This may include pumping of acids, energized fluids and various other chemicals to improve formation flow characteristics. Image: U.S. Department of Labor
The federal government should begin a major effort to measure greenhouse gas emissions tied to the nation's booming natural gas industry, a Department of Energy advisory panel said today in a series of proposals on air and water quality issues.
The seven-member advisory panel under Energy Secretary Steven Chu released its first report outlining steps that regulators and companies drilling in vast U.S. shale gas reservoirs should take to avoid significant environmental damage and assuage public concern.
"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," says the report. "Absent effective control, public opposition will grow, thus putting continued production at risk."
The expanded use of drilling technology to extract resources trapped in tight formations 8,000 feet underground has opened the door to trillions of cubic feet of new natural gas reserves. Tens of thousands of gas wells are expected to be drilled in the coming decade, according to energy industry and U.S. government estimates, and much of that gas will be delivered to electric utilities as a cleaner substitute for burning coal.
But increasingly in the past couple of years, those expectations have been tempered. There is growing concern that the rapid expansion of drilling in the Northeast and even in traditional oil- and gas-producing states such as Texas and Colorado has far outpaced regulatory oversight. In the wake of the BP PLC Macondo oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year, a rising tide of public push-back against the gas industry, resulting in a temporary moratorium on exploration in New York, prompted the White House to get involved.
"My view is that shale gas development has outpaced the ability to ensure its safety," said Fred Krupp, a member of the Energy Advisory Board subcommittee that issued the 40-page report and president of the Environmental Defense Fund. "The report sketches out a path forward. That has the potential, if implemented, to rebuild the public's trust."
The panel is led by former CIA Director John Deutch and includes some of Chu's top outside advisers, including Daniel Yergin, chairman of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates, and former Clinton White House energy officials.
A more exact measure of carbon footprint wanted
While Krupp is a presence for environmental groups, the panel has come under fire from some for being too heavily weighted toward gas industry interests. For his part, Deutch sits on the board of Cheniere Energy, which owns liquefied natural gas import terminals on the Gulf Coast, and used to sit on the board of oil services giant Schlumberger.
In interviews, Krupp, Deutch and other panel members said the 90-day review yielded consensus on the need to dramatically increase information that regulators and the public have about the use of chemicals, water use, toxic waste disposal and air emissions.
"There needs to be more ways to track progress," Deutch said. "We need to make it more environmentally benign over time; that's how we're going to get to success."
Air emissions tied to gas development are getting more attention as drilling gets closer to urban centers and as an accumulation of industrial-sized gas projects dots rural landscapes. Smog-forming emissions are a result, but so are greenhouse gases.