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The Secretary of Energy Advisor Board Shale Gas Production Subcommittee Ninety-Day Report – August 11, 2011

From the Executive Summary

The Shale Gas Subcommittee of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board is charged with identifying measures that can be taken to reduce the environmental impact and improve the safety of shale gas production.

Natural gas is a cornerstone of the U.S. economy, providing a quarter of the country’s total energy. Owing to breakthroughs in technology, production from shale formations has gone from a negligible amount just a few years ago to being almost 30 percent of total U.S. natural gas production. This has brought lower prices, domestic jobs, and the prospect of enhanced national security due to the potential of substantial production growth. But the growth has also brought questions about whether both current and future production can be done in an environmentally sound fashion that meets the needs of public trust.

This 90-day report presents recommendations that if implemented will reduce the environmental impacts from shale gas production. The Subcommittee stresses the importance of a process of continuous improvement in the various aspects of shale gas production that relies on best practices and is tied to measurement and disclosure.

While many companies are following such a process, much-broader and more extensive adoption is warranted. The approach benefits all parties in shale gas production: regulators will have more complete and accurate information; industry will achieve more efficient operations; and the public will see continuous, measurable improvement in shale gas activities.

From the report

The urgency of addressing environmental consequences
As with all energy use, shale gas must be produced in a manner that prevents, minimizes and mitigates environmental damage and the risk of accidents and protects public health and safety. Public concern and debate about the production of shale gas has grown as shale gas output has expanded.

The Subcommittee identifies four major areas of concern: (1) Possible pollution of drinking water from methane and chemicals used in fracturing fluids; (2) Air pollution; (3) Community disruption during shale gas production; and (4) Cumulative adverse impacts that intensive shale production can have on communities and ecosystems.

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. Absent effective control, public opposition will grow, thus putting continued production at risk. Moreover, with anticipated increase in U.S. hydraulically fractured wells, if effective environmental action is not taken today, the potential environmental consequences will grow to a point that the country will be faced a more serious problem. Effective action requires both strong regulation and a shale gas industry in which all participating companies are committed to continuous improvement.

The rapid expansion of production and rapid change in technology and field practice, requires federal and state agencies to adapt and evolve their regulations. Industry’s pursuit of more efficient operations often has environmental as well as economic benefits, including waste minimization, greater gas recovery, less water usage, and a reduced operating footprint. So there are many reasons to be optimistic that continuous improvement of shale gas production in reducing existing and potential undesirable impacts can be a cooperative effort among the public, companies in the industry, and regulators

(11 Aug 2011)

Gas Fracking Poses Serious Environmental Risks, Panel Finds

Jim Efstathiou Jr., Bloomberg

Natural-gas companies risk causing serious environmental damage from hydraulic fracturing unless they commit to the best engineering practices, a task force named by Energy Secretary Steven Chu concluded.

Regulations to protect public health will work best when drillers embrace techniques that avoid “undesirable consequences,” according to a draft report today by a subcommittee of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board. The increased use of fracturing, or fracking, which forces water and chemicals into rock, raises the potential for a “serious problem,” the panel found.

The report offered recommendations for companies involved in fracking, such as Chesapeake Energy Inc. and Southwestern Energy Co. (SWN), to follow, and guidelines for state regulators that oversee drilling…

“There will be some in the environment community or in the anti-fracking community who will be disappointed because it has a message of frack-with-caution rather than don’t frack at all,” Ben Grumbles, president of the Clean Water America Alliance in Washington, a group that backs the technique with precautions, said in an interview. “The spin zone of the industry is going to be very concerned about what’s between the lines when the report is recommending that there be much more aggressive efforts to control ozone precursors and other emissions. It shows some balance.”

The subcommittee, formed in January, is led by former CIA Director John Deutch and includes Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, and Daniel Yergin, co-founder of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates. The group will hand up a full report in late November, Energy Department spokesman Tom Reynolds said…

(11 Aug 2011)

Panel Seeks Stiffer Rules for Drilling of Gas Wells

Robbie Brown and Ian Urbina, New York Times

…In January, an advisory board to the Department of Energy said that it planned to conduct an analysis of natural gas development.

After The New York Times published starting in February a series of articles and internal Environmental Protection Agency documents revealing legal and environmental concerns among the agency’s enforcement lawyers about natural gas drilling, President Obama asked Steven Chu, the energy secretary, in May to produce an advisory report within 90 days on ways to improve the oversight of natural gas drilling.

However, the committee has been criticized by all sides since its creation. In three separate letters, 57 New York lawmakers, 28 scientists, and representatives from more than 100 environmental groups cited concerns about the industry ties held by six members of the seven-person panel, including Mr. Deutch, who sits on the board of Cheniere Energy, a company that has plans to export liquefied natural gas.

When the president announced the committee, Republican lawmakers including Representative Fred Upton of Michigan, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, called the study redundant, pointing to research already under way by the E.P.A.

Some E.P.A. officials have also complained about the committee, which they said seemed to pre-empt and undermine the E.P.A.’s own more rigorous national study on fracking and drinking water. The agency’s preliminary findings are expected next year.

The Obama administration has strongly supported expanding drilling for natural gas because it is an abundant domestic and potentially cleaner source of electricity than coal…

(11 Aug 2011)

See more from the NY Times Drilling Down series on shale gas

Also see PCI’s reports Will Natural Gas Fuel America in the 21st Century? and Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Shale Gas Compared to Coal: An Analysis of Two Conflicting Studies.

Impacts of shale gas and shale oil extraction on the environment and on human heath report for the European Parliament