DOE Committee Releases Recommendations on Fracking

After mounting concern about the public health and environmental risks of natural gas fracking, last May Obama directed Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Steven Chu to create an advisory board to examine the practice.

The EPA is also working on it, and has proposed its first-ever standards to regulate air emissions of fracking, and will issue final standards in 2012.

A Little Background

Fracking is exempt from regulation under US environmental laws because of what’s known as the "Halliburton loophole."

Halliburton is one of the largest companies engaged in fracking, for which former Vice President Cheney was CEO during the 1990s. During his tenor as vice president, 16 major natural gas companies spent over $70 million lobbying Congress to be exempted from regulations.  

The Halliburton loophole was inserted into the 2005 Energy Policy Act, which made the natural gas industry the sole industry that didn’t have to abide by the regulations of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

According to Pro Publica, "the exemptions were forced through against objections, without hearings by a Republican majority.  Ever since, in the face of intense lobbying, any efforts to address the topic have stalled in committee."

Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB) Natural Gas Subcommittee

The committee wasn’t tasked with evaluating whether fracking is safe.

It’s task was to "identify, within 90 days, any immediate steps that can be taken to improve the safety and environmental performance of fracking and to develop, within six months, consensus recommended advice to the agencies on practices for shale extraction to ensure the protection of public health and the environment." 

On Thursday, the subcommittee issued its preliminary recommendations on how to improve the safety of natural gas fracturing.

There was no mention of whether the natural gas industry should be regulated under our environmental laws as is every other industry.

Its main recommendation is that natural gas companies should publicly disclose the chemicals they use in fracking, something the industry has been unwilling to do. The industry claims the chemicals are "proprietary."

The report states. "there is no economic or technical reason to prevent public disclosure of all chemicals in fracturing fluids, with an exception for genuinely proprietary information." 

They also recommend:

  • using a life-cycle approach to managing and tracking water and wastewater;
  • extensive testing, monitoring, and disclosure of air pollution associated with gas development;
  • further study of the climate change impacts posed by emissions of the potent greenhouse gas methane.

"The gas industry needs to change the way it’s been doing business. This report by the DOE subcommittee identifies a lengthy to-do list for the gas industry and shows just how far this industry has to go before its practices can be considered safe for public health and the environment," says Earthjustice President Trip Van Noppen.

Who is on the Advisory Committee?

All but one of the appointees to the committee have financial ties to the oil and gas industry. 

28 scientists from 22 universities wrote in a letter to Secretary Chu: 

    In our work, we believe in reducing individual biases in evaluating the merits of scientific or technological ideas. The current panel does not meet this standard. Six of the seven members have current financial ties to the natural gas and oil industry.

    These conflicts of interest make it appear that the subcommittee is designed to serve industry at taxpayer expense rather than serving President Obama and the public with credible advice. The committee appears to be performing advocacy-based science and seems to have already concluded that hydraulic fracturing is safe. We believe that the best science should be done first to determine whether increased unconventional natural gas production is sufficiently safe — from the individual water well to climate impact — and that policy should follow.

Where Does the Public Stand?

A poll by New York’s Quinnipiac University, released the same day as the DOE report – finds the state’s voters favor increased drilling for natural gas – by a thin margin – despite environmental concerns. 

47% percent of those polled say they favor increased drilling, and 42% oppose it.

75% believe expanded drilling would create jobs, and 59% want to see increased tax revenue from drilling.

At the same time, 52% agree that fracking is like to cause environmental damage. 15% said it would not, and 33% were undecided.

The poll surveyed 1,640 registered voters at the beginning of August with a margin of error of plus or minus 2.4 percentage points. 

The poll does not reflect a vocal and growing opposition to fracking that has built over the last year, as information and anecdotal evidence has spread about fracking.

Just last week a coalition of 47 consumer, faith, food, environmental and multi-issue advocacy organizations called for a statewide ban of the practice in New York, pointing to over 1,000 cases of water contamination that have been reported near fracking sites to date.

The coalition is one of numerous groups organizing petition drives across the country, while dozens of local governments and even the state of New Jersey have passed legislation banning the practice.

What Will Federal Policy Be?

The DOE panel will issue its final set of recommendations in November, though no federal action will take place before the 2012 election.

The Obama administration has been a strong supporter of expanding domestic production of natural gas to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reliance on foreign oil.

It’s unlikely the administration will get behind a federal ban on hydraulic fracturing. But to keep the support of the environmental community, Obama and the EPA need to address hydraulic fracturing sooner, rather than later, as the issue is rapidly heating up.

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