Wednesday, September 6, 2011
By Nicholas Kusnetz, ProPublica
Report for Obama questions effectiveness of gas drilling regulations.
|Graphic by Al Granberg/ProPublica|
In sharp contrast with gas industry portrayals, the draft report released in mid-August by a federal panel on shale gas drilling explicitly acknowledges that current regulations may be insufficient to protect the environment and public health.
For years, the gas industry has said that drilling with hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, into deep shale formations is safe. The federal government has been caught in an awkward position, limited from regulating the industry by exemptions written into federal environmental laws, while also working to promote domestic energy production.
The draft report continues to promote drilling, but it comes down squarely on the side of stronger oversight. It notes serious environmental impacts from shale gas drilling and says it is “far from clear” whether federal and state regulations are protecting the public.
“If effective environmental action is not taken today,” the report says, “the potential environmental consequences will grow to a point that the country will be faced [with] a more serious problem.”
Many of the panel’s recommendations already have been adopted by some states and members of the drilling industry over the last couple of years, including disclosure of chemicals used in fracking and better well construction.
Some go further. The report recommends that companies monitor air quality on drilling sites and publish those results. It also calls for limits on emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas and the primary component of natural gas.
“I think we’re lifting the bar a bit,” said John Deutch, chairman of the panel. Deutch is a former CIA director, has worked for the Energy Department and also sits on the board of two energy companies.
Across the board, the panel recommended making more information available to the public in order to create transparency and give a sense that progress is being made, Deutch said.
President Obama commissioned the report in March from Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who later appointed the seven-member panel. The panel was given 90 days — ending Aug. 11 — to come up with immediate steps that can be taken by regulators and drillers.
The report released the following day doesn’t recommend any specific regulations, leaving that to state and federal agencies. Many recommendations rely on industry cooperation.
“Whether and how these recommendations will be implemented is absolutely the critical question,” said Matt Watson, senior energy policy manager at the Environmental Defense Fund. That organization’s president, Fred Krupp, was the panel’s only member from an environmental group.
The report is notable in part because of the makeup of the panel. Some environmentalists, academics and state lawmakers have criticized the group, saying that six of the seven members have financial ties to oil and gas companies. Watson, who was not among that group of environmentalists, said the members’ biographies could make the recommendations carry more weight.
“Some of them are quite bold,” he said of the findings, “and it’s noteworthy that a group like this panel, which is made up of members with very diverse backgrounds, would come to consensus.”
Some aspects of the report are in clear conflict with industry characterizations. For example, the report says that the oft-repeated industry line — that fracking has been performed safely for decades — is insufficient to quell concerns. Instead, it says, the industry must monitor its own activities and make those results public.
The Independent Petroleum Association of America, an industry group, issued a statement calling the report a “useful starting point” for achieving improved safety. The group did not respond to a request for comment.
On the central question in the debate over fracking — whether millions of gallons of fluids injected deep in the earth can migrate through cracks and contaminate aquifers — the panel took a nuanced view. The report says there is a slight chance of that happening, but it does not rule out the possibility, saying “few if any” cases have been confirmed. Deutch said they chose the wording out of caution, not because they are aware of any cases.
“This all depends upon how prudent a person you are,” he said. “If you say ‘no cases,’ one is going to turn up.”
Anatomy of a Gas Well
Some advocates said the panel’s recommendations fell short of what is needed to protect the public. Dusty Horwitt, senior counsel for the Environmental Working Group, said he was disappointed that the report made no mention of the many exemptions for oil and gas companies from major environmental laws like the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Air Act. While he supports many of the recommendations, he said it is unclear how they will translate into better practices.
“The question is, who is going to enforce some of these reforms that the panel is calling for?” he said. “We have laws on the books that could prevent some of the problems that the panel and others are interested in solving, but the panel was silent about those laws.”
The report comes amid a robust public relations effort from the industry arguing that drilling and fracking are safe. As concerns have grown, companies have been running full-page spreads in newspapers and putting ads on TV.
ProPublica has been reporting on the safety and environmental risks of gas drilling for three years. Previous investigations have detailed many of the problems addressed in these recommendations, including doubts over the climate benefits of natural gas, gaps in the disclosure of fracking chemicals and problems with wastewater disposal.
Although many of the panel’s recommendations have already been adopted or considered by state governments and the EPA, the report is significant in its acknowledgement of the threats, said Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“What’s important here are the underlying findings: that there are problems that need to be fixed, and that they can be fixed.”
Two of the most significant recommendations involve water use and air quality. The EPA proposed rules in July that would reduce emissions of smog-forming and toxic air pollutants from many stages of the drilling process. The report calls for a broader approach that would encompass more operations and that would also limit methane emissions.
The panelists also called for a systemic approach to water use that would track every step from withdrawal to disposal. Most states do not track exactly how much of the fluids pumped underground in fracking returns to the surface as waste — as much as 90 percent can remain.
Other recommendations call for the creation of a public database linking to disparate sources of information on fracking and shale gas drilling, and for more research and development from the government (the Energy Department recently announced $10.3 million in grants for shale gas research). Deutch said the proposals call for about $75 million in new federal spending on these initiatives.
The draft will be reviewed by an Energy Department committee next week before being finalized. Over the next 90 days, the panelists will use the recommendations to come up with specific advice for the Department of Interior, which regulates drilling on federal land, and the EPA. It will be up to those agencies to pursue any rulemaking they decide is necessary.
This story is part of an ongoing investigation into fracking by ProPublica, an independent non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest and in 2010 became the first online news source to win a Pulitzer Prize. Advances in horizontal drilling have made fracking a common process, especially in north Louisiana’s natural gas rich Haynesville Share area. For more on the investigation into this method for extracting natural gas, visit propublica.org.
A federal jury found attorney Daniel Stanford guilty Friday afternoon on eight of 13 counts for his role in the Curious Goods conspiracy.
Lafayette City-Court Judge Francie Bouillion has served on the bench for two decades since winning a special election to replace Judge Kaliste Saloom when he retired in 1994.
The Houston firm said Friday in its weekly report that 1,575 rigs were exploring for oil and 338 for gas. One was listed as miscellaneous. A year ago there were 1,776 active rigs.
A crew began erecting the 25-foot mini-wheel late morning Friday in anticipation of the evening’s Hottest Night of the Year party at the park.
Frances Boothe of Nunez, who also happens to be filmmaker Stephen Meaux’s grandmother, prepares a cool-weather fave.
The magazine's senior football writer also predicts a break-out year for Saints fourth-year running back Mark Ingram.
New Iberia colonial or Broussard traditional home
The LPSB is poised and ready to move forward with the termination of Pat Cooper following a discussion Thursday with the attorney hired for the investigation of the superintendent, but a decision of this magnitude should be left up to the new board seated in January, especially with three pro-investigation board members bailing out come the new year.
Fiery style for game day
Acadiana's nightlife guide.
Gulf Coast ceremonies marking the ninth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina have begun.
The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries says there is little known about the effects of tiger prawns on indigenous Louisiana shrimp. But, officials say the reports they're seeking will help state biologists monitor the distribution of the prawns and determine the possible presence of spawning populations.
Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh rested his regulars and watched with delight as Ray Rice's backups ground out 214 yards rushing in a 22-13 victory over the New Orleans Saints on Thursday night.
Friday's Blogs from the Bog!
Google vs. Amazon in drone race; more deaths in Syria; Russia escalates Ukraine conflict and more national and international news for Friday, August 29, 2014.
High-profile criminal defense attorney Daniel Stanford awaits his fate in the Curious Goods conspiracy trial.
The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries is set to put the kibosh on the legal ownership of monkeys trained to help the disabled, and the agency wants to know what you think.
A federal judge on Thursday asked lawyers battling over Louisiana's new, restrictive abortion law for an agreement that apparently could let clinics stay open — at least for a while — after the law takes effect Sept. 1.
Three bedroom Port Barre cottage or three bedroom historic district Opelousas home
No laboring for shoppers this holiday
It will be next month before Gov. Bobby Jindal will likely get a chance to change the membership of a South Louisiana flood board that is suing dozens of oil, gas and pipeline companies.
Acadiana's nightlife guide.
An abortion rights organization wants a federal judge to block enforcement of Louisiana's new abortion law while its lawsuit to overturn the law makes its way through court.
Republican presidential prospects Ted Cruz and Bobby Jindal are planning to speak at an Iowa Christian conservative event in September.
The attention surrounding Victor White III has spiked with the release of last week’s autopsy report, which has raised a number of serious questions about the night of his death and has put the Iberia Parish Sheriff’s Office under an increased wave of scrutiny as more national media outlets are jumping on the story, most recently seen on MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show.
The Acadiana Center for the Arts and the Lafayette Economic Development Authority have announced a new artist stipend program, ArtSpark, designed to offer financial aid to local artists.
A group supporting taxpayer-funded private school tuition vouchers is appealing a federal judge's order that Louisiana must provide regular reports to federal officials on the state's voucher program.
The Discovery Channel has canceled reality TV star Will Hayden's popular "Sons of Guns" show after his arrest on an aggravated rape charge.
The LPSB will finally hear from the attorney it hired to investigate the superintendent at a special meeting Thursday at 4 p.m.
Three bedroom traditional or two bedroom Victorian cottage