A group of U.S. investors has filed shareholder resolutions with nine oil and gas companies, pressing them to disclose their plans for managing water pollution, litigation and regulatory risks that are increasingly associated with ever-expanding natural gas hydraulic fracturing operations (also known as “fracking”).
Resolutions were filed with many of the natural gas industry’s significant players, including ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM), Chevron (NYSE: CVX), Ultra Petroleum (NYSE: UPL), El Paso (NYSE: EP), Cabot Oil & Gas (NYSE: COG), Southwestern Energy (NYSE: SWN), Energen Anadarko (NYSE: EGN) and Carrizo Oil & Gas (Nasdaq: CRZO).
"Oil and gas firms are being too vague about how they will manage the environmental challenges resulting from fracking," said New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, whose office filed a resolution with Cabot Oil & Gas asking for a specific plan to reduce or eliminate the hazards. "The risks associated with unconventional shale gas extraction have the potential to negatively impact shareholder value. I urge companies working in this field to share their risk mitigation and management strategies with investors and the public."
The shareholder proposals ask companies to disclose their policies and strategies for reducing environmental and financial risks from chemicals use, water impacts and a host of other issues. The resolutions also request adoption of best management practices, such as:
- recycling and reusing waste waters
- reducing the volumes and toxicity of chemicals
- disclosing the chemicals used in fracturing operations
- assuring the integrity of well cementing through pressure testing and other methods.
Use of hydraulic fracturing, which involves high-pressure injection of water, chemicals and particles deep underground to break up shale formations and release trapped natural gas, has escalated in recent years. Oil and gas companies are increasingly turning to hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” to unlock vast, yet previously unavailable reserves as conventional natural gas supplies have dwindled. ExxonMobil, for example recently spent $36 billion to buy shale-gas company XTO Energy while Chevron purchased Atlas Energy in a $4 billion deal.
The Energy Department recently more than doubled estimates of recoverable shale reserves to 827 trillion cubic feet, the energy equivalent of 140 billion barrels of oil. The American Petroleum Institute estimates that 60% to 80% of natural gas wells drilled in the next decade will require hydraulic fracturing.
Environmental risks stem largely from poor well-construction practices, which can lead to drinking water contamination, well blowouts and gas leaks, and from inadequate wastewater recycling and management practices. Concerns about water contamination incidents are growing as operations expand, creating reputational and litigation liabilities for companies.
Lawsuits have been filed against four companies over alleged water contamination in Pennsylvania. New York State adopted a temporary moratorium on new permits for fracking. Philadelphia’s city council has urged a ban on fracking in the Delaware River Basin until environmental studies have been completed, and Pittsburgh, which sits atop gas deposits, has banned fracking within city limits.
“High profile water contamination incidents, new litigation, and public protests that include calls for moratoria on natural gas permitting all suggest sizeable and rising business risks to companies and attendant threats to shareholder value,” said Richard Liroff, executive director of the Investor Environmental Health Network (IEHN), which helped coordinate the resolutions. “Shareholders need assurance that companies are candidly disclosing these risks and are adopting best management practices to minimize them.”
Investors filing the resolutions include the New York State Comptroller (Cabot Oil & Gas, Carrizo Oil & Gas), Domini Social Investments (Southwestern Energy), As You Sow (ExxonMobil and Ultra Petroleum), Trillium Asset Management (Anadarko), Miller/Howard Investments (El Paso and Energen), and The Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia (Chevron).
According to Kristina Curtis, senior vice president at Green Century Capital Management (GCCM), which coordinated the resolutions with IEHN, “It is critical that shareholders of natural gas companies understand and address the business risks associated with this type of gas drilling. Companies and regulators must ensure this development is done in a way that protects the environment, especially our drinking water, and mitigates potential financial risks”
Though investors are concerned about the bottom line impacts of hydraulic fracturing, many also contend that cleaner-burning natural gas has a critical role to play in both increasing domestic energy supplies and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and that unconventional methods like fracking make it possible for natural gas to fill that role.
“Natural gas can play a major role in meeting our nation’s near-term climate and energy challenges, but hydraulic fracturing must be done in a way that protects the environment and public health,” said Mindy S. Lubber, president of Ceres and director of the $9 trillion Investor Network on Climate Risk. “Investors believe that companies can profitably minimize fracking’s water contamination, gas leaks and other material risks by adopting best management practices and by phasing out the most toxic chemicals.”
In the 2010 proxy season investors filed resolutions with a dozen oil and gas companies and, among those receiving resolutions, Williams began disclosing the measures it takes to ensure well integrity, described its recycling practices, and discussed “green completions” that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and enhance profitability. Range Resources (NYSE: RRC) reported its recycling measures in the Marcellus Shale that have saved approximately $200,000 per well and Hess (NYSE: HES) stated it is working with its suppliers to reduce the amount and toxicity of fracking fluids used.
The texts of the resolutions are available at the link below.