A U.S. Department of Energy panel wants energy companies to reveal all the chemicals they use in a drilling technique that has allowed them to reach huge and previously inaccessible deposits of natural gas and paved the way for tens of thousands of new wells but that critics say could poison water supplies.
The panel, convened by Energy Secretary Steven Chu at the request of President Barack Obama, contends there's little risk that the chemicals injected thousands of feet underground will ever reach shallow drinking water aquifers. But with increasing public concern about the drilling process, called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, there's no reason why companies can't publicly disclose all the ingredients, the panel said in a report being released Thursday.
"In our judgment, they should disclose the entire suite of chemicals," except in "very rare" instances in which chemicals are judged to be truly proprietary, John Deutch, chairman of the Shale Gas Subcommittee of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board, told The Associated Press.
The panel said there are more pressing concerns associated with intensive shale gas extraction, chief among them air pollution, contamination of drinking water by stray methane and surface spills of chemicals, disruption to communities where intensive gas production is taking place and cumulative negative impacts over decades.
The focus of gas drilling companies has shifted in recent years to the Marcellus Shale, a massive rock formation underlying New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. The recent increase in unconventional gas drilling has helped the nation become self-sufficient in meeting its demand for natural gas, the panel said, but public opposition has been galvanized by the potential for serious impacts on human health and the environment.
"These adverse environmental impacts need to be prevented, reduced and, where possible, eliminated as soon as possible," the panel said. "Absent effective control, public opposition will grow, thus putting continued production at risk."
Without a coordinated, systematic approach to shale gas development, widespread drilling has the potential to harm public health, the environment and people's quality of life "even when individual operators conduct their activities in ways that meet and exceed regulatory requirements," the report said.
Among its other recommendations, the subcommittee:
- said that drillers should take immediate additional steps to reduce air emissions and protect groundwater supplies.
- encouraged the creation of a $20 million online portal to help improve the public's understanding of unconventional gas drilling. The database would collate and link more than 100 existing sources of government data on shale gas, providing a one-stop shop for the public.
- called for improved regulation and the establishment of an industry group to determine and promote best practices.
- cited a need for additional federal funding of basic research.
Deutch, a chemist best known as CIA director under President Bill Clinton, said the economic benefits of shale gas "massively outweigh" the environmental and public health impacts - if those impacts are kept to a manageable level.
"If you do it right, the balance is enormously on the side of production," said Deutch, speaking for himself and not the panel. "If you do it wrong, the public will not accept it and we will lose a potentially great economic opportunity."
Shale gas has rapidly become an important part of U.S. natural gas production, rising from 8 percent of total output in 2007 to nearly 30 percent in June of this year, according to the Energy Information Administration, which provides information on energy production. That has resulted in lower home-heating and electric bills for consumers and could reduce the nation's dependence on foreign sources of oil, the committee report said.
To reach the gas, energy companies use horizontal drilling combined with fracking. The technique pumps millions of gallons of chemically laced water and sand at high pressure down the well bore, breaking up dense shale deposits and releasing the gas molecules.
Many companies already voluntarily report some of the ingredients in their fracking cocktails to a relatively new online registry called FracFocus. But the Department of Energy panel noted that FracFocus excludes many chemicals often used in fracking. It called on regulators to require complete disclosure.
"The barrier to shield chemicals based on trade secret should be set very high," the report said.
Yet the panel's view of fracking itself is unlikely to satisfy critics of the practice. The panel said it "shares the prevailing view" that fracking poses a low risk to drinking water supplies because thousands of feet of earth separate fracking chemicals from groundwater.
Opponents have publicized accidents that had nothing to do with fracking and may have been unrelated to shale gas drilling altogether, the report asserted.
But the panel also said the industry's stock reply that fracking has been performed safely for more than 60 years won't succeed in convincing a skeptical public. Nor does it take into account the recent combination of fracking and horizontal drilling, in which well bores extend laterally for thousands of feet.
Neither side in the drilling debate is pleased with the makeup of the panel.
Twenty-eight scientists and academics complained in a letter to Chu on Wednesday that it lacked impartiality, "appears to be performing advocacy-based science and seems to have already concluded that hydraulic fracturing is safe."
The letter, which was distributed by Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based group that questions the safety of fracking, called on Deutch to step down and be replaced with someone with no financial ties to the oil and gas industry. Deutch is on the board of Cheniere Energy Inc., a developer of liquid natural gas terminals.
Erik Milito, upstream director of the American Petroleum Institute, complained the panel lacks industry expertise, saying in a written statement that drillers are already heavily regulated and committed to high standards.
Deutch defended the makeup of the seven-member panel, saying it represents a good mix of backgrounds, including academic experts, industry consultants and two former state environmental agency chiefs.