Drilling reforms too slow, DOE panel says
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal and state officials have moved far too slowly to beef up restrictions to protect the environment and local communities from the growing boom in natural gas drilling, a U.S. Department of Energy advisory panel warned Thursday.
The DOE's Shale Gas Production Subcommittee urged lawmakers, regulators and industry to act more quickly on recommendations ranging from new guidelines for well casing construction to studies of new science indicating natural gas may not provide the greenhouse gas advantages previously estimated.
"The progress to date is less than the subcommittee hoped," the group said in a press release.
The subcommittee -- made up of mostly of experts with ties to industry -- said if action is not taken "there is a real risk of serious environmental consequences and a loss of public confidence that could delay or stop this activity."
The panel's new report comes as Marcellus Shale drilling legislation in West Virginia appears stalled by industry opposition to provisions aimed at setting a buffer zone around homes, firming up well-casing construction standards and requiring public notice of new drilling permit applications.
On Thursday, lawmakers called off an unusual Sunday morning committee meeting on the Marcellus legislation. They scheduled a new meeting for 8 a.m. Monday at the Capitol, just before a U.S. Senate field hearing on natural gas drilling set to begin at 10 a.m. across Charleston at the Robert C. Byrd Federal Courthouse.
West Virginia business and political leaders have for several years been promoting a potential boom in Marcellus Shale gas drilling, saying it will provide a huge economic boost to the state. Those leaders say they want drilling to be done responsibly, but so far new legislation has failed and additional inspectors have not been hired.
But DOE panel members say policymakers and industry need to get out in front of potential problems associated with drilling, or face serious damage and continued public opposition to industry practices.
"The development of shale gas is one of the biggest energy innovations, if not the biggest, in several decades," said the DOE subcommittee chairman and MIT professor John Deutch. "But to ensure the full benefits to the American people, environmental issues need to be addressed now -- especially in terms of wastewater, air quality and community impact."
Obama administration Energy Secretary Steven Chu appointed the subcommittee to recommend improvements in safety and environmental performance for expanded gas-drilling operations that use hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and advanced horizontal drilling techniques.
In its initial report in August, the subcommittee said that, "Intensive shale gas development can potentially have serious impacts on public health, the environment and quality of life -- even when individual operators conduct their activities in ways that meet and exceed regulatory requirements.
"The combination of impacts from multiple drilling and production operations, support infrastructure (pipelines, road networks, etc.) and related activities can overwhelm ecosystems and communities," the panel said.
The new report outlines some areas where action hasn't been taken or where subcommittee members felt actions taken were not adequate:
• A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposal for the first-ever air pollution standards for drilling do not directly limit methane emissions and fail to cover existing shale-gas sources except for fractured or re-fractured existing wells.
• While some universities have published new reports on the issue, government agencies have not launched new studies on the potential for methane from drilling operations to migrate into drinking water supplies.
• More detailed reviews need to be performed to follow-up on a series of scientific papers that found greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas are far greater than originally thought, questioning the conventional wisdom that it is a good "bridge fuel" to help the nation move from coal to renewable energy.
• EPA and the states are "not engaged in developing a systems/lifecycle approach to water management" for the drilling industry, and more work needs to be done to push for improvements in well-casing design and construction.
The DOE panel also said, though, that legislation and regulation isn't the only answer to potential problems associated with the natural gas boom.
"Short- and long-term community impacts range from traffic, noise, land use, disruption of wildlife and habitat, with little or no allowance for planning or effective mechanisms to bring companies, regulators, and citizens to deliberate about how best to deal with near-term and cumulative impacts," the new report said.
"The subcommittee does not believe that these issues will resolve themselves or be solved by prescriptive regulation or in the courts," the report said. "State and local governments should take the lead in experimenting with different mechanisms for engaging these issues in a constructive way, seeking to go beyond discussion to practical mitigation."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.