The Department of Energy’s Shale Gas Subcommittee issued its first of two reports [PDF] on measures that can be taken to reduce the environmental impacts of shale gas production. While focusing on the need for more comprehensive disclosure, the development of best practices, as well as the overall importance of ensuring environmentally safe practices, the report takes direct aim at environmentalists’ claims that fracking itself presents substantial risks to drinking water:
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.
The report notes that “in the great majority of regions where shale gas is being produced, [large depth separation between drinking water sources and the producing zone] exists, and there are few, if any, documented examples of such migration.” Instead, the Subcommittee focuses on poor well construction, design, and casing as presenting the largest risks to drinking water—something it recommends be managed through industry best practices like those taken by Northeast Energy and highlighted in a recent post on this site.
Other notable conclusions from the study include:
- Confirmation that a one-sized-fits all regulatory scheme is likely impossible given the widespread geological diversity in plays throughout the country.
- While methane leakage into water sources in production areas is a concern, “the presence of methane in wells surrounding a shale gas production site is not ipso facto evidence of a methane leakage from the fractured producing well since methane may be present in surrounding shallow methane deposits or the result of past conventional drilling activity.” This conclusion supports Range Resources claims in its closely watched EPA enforcement case in Texas.
- The Subcommittee was “struck by the enormous difference in perception about the consequences of shale activities,” attributing the chasm to “communication issues”—a troubling phenomenon this blog has raised repeatedly (see here and here).
- An integrated water management system is needed, which takes a life-cycle water management approach and includes the measurement and public reporting of the composition of water stocks and the manifesting of all water transfers.
- The report notes shortcomings with current disclosure requirements, and implores the immediate and complete disclosure of all chemicals, with rare exceptions made for trade secrets. This portion of the report is complimentary of some of the issues raised by Earthjustice in its recent TSCA petition [PDF] (i.e., MSDS data are insufficient), and may provide support for EPA accepting that petition.
- Air emissions are increasingly a concern in certain parts of the country due to drilling expansion. The report cites EPA’s July 28, 2011 proposed amendments to oil and gas air emissions standards as achieving significant benefits if finalized.
- Discovery and development of natural gas from shale resources since 2008 has created tangible and significant economic benefits, including over 200,000 jobs.
- Increased development of natural gas from shale resources holds significant national security benefits.
- Natural gas offers climate change advantages over coal, placing the number at about one-half the equivalent carbon dioxide emissions when natural gas as opposed to coal is used in electric power generation. The Subcommittee discredited this year’s earlier report by Robert Howarth of Cornell, which gave a much more pessimistic view of natural gas’s greenhouse gas mitigation potential, noting that the Cornell study is “not widely accepted.”