The DOE panel recommended "a thorough assessment of the greenhouse gas footprint for cradle-to-grave use of natural gas."
A widely distributed study out of Cornell University suggested gas could be just as dirty as coal when the energy-intensive process of extraction is included. When burned, gas produces about half of the carbon emissions of coal. Still, the process of drilling for oil and gas releases into the atmosphere methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas. Technologies exist to slash methane emissions, said the panel.
The DOE panel found too little analysis and data on the potential global warming impact of a long-term gas boom in the United States, and it called on industry and government to work together on a comprehensive study.
DOE and U.S. EPA stepped in this year to help avert a looming impasse on the question of how much and how fast America's shale gas resources should be developed. Negative media reports from rural communities in northeastern Pennsylvania, New York City's opposition to drilling through its major aquifer, and air quality issues in Texas put the gas industry on the defensive.
A rush to invest and drill
Top producers Chesapeake Energy and Exxon Mobil Corp., along with hundreds of big and small oil and gas producers, are pouring billions of dollars into developing North American shale formations. Meanwhile, demand for natural gas is going up. EPA enforcement of the Clean Air Act is pushing the oldest and dirtiest coal-fired power plants out of the nation's power fleet.
Chu appointed the Energy Advisory Board subcommittee on natural gas in May after President Obama tapped Chu to make short-term recommendations that can quickly address safety and environmental concerns about extracting shale gas. DOE was to do a speedy analysis that could ease public concern and start the industry down a more sustainable path as it tries to develop the 800 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable gas in the shale.
The nation's massive shale and tight gas reservoirs are spread across the Northeast; in the upper Midwest; under Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Arkansas; and north into the Rocky Mountain region.
Members of Chu's advisory panel emphasized that they reached consensus on major issues, particularly the need for the industry to be as transparent as possible and to adopt best practices. But the members came from different perspectives.
"I've been a petroleum engineer for 40 years," said member Stephen Holditch, who heads up the Department of Petroleum Engineering at Texas A&M University. "What I tried to get across is that best practices change with geographical area. The best practices in south Texas are different than Wyoming."
Data collection is critical, Holditch said. "You can't fix anything until you measure it," he said. "If there's an issue, the industry will fix it. But you don't know until you make the measurements."
Industry groups started reacting yesterday to rumors about what would be released today. America's Natural Gas Alliance, which advocates for expanded use of gas across the economy and for more state regulatory control, said it was pleased the panel would recommend a "multi-stakeholder process" to work with state regulators.
Call for public disclosure of 'fracking' chemicals
The panel's recommendations included public disclosure of chemicals during the hydraulic fracturing process, which is widely called "fracking." That's when gas companies blast a concoction of water, sand and chemicals underground to split shale rock and release natural gas. Critics say they're concerned the high-pressure injections could allow toxic chemicals into the clean water supply.