Nat Gas Boom Brings Environmental Concerns

The shale gas energy industry needs to put in place better practices and reporting about "fracking" before public concerns delay or even stop use of the technology that has created a boom in U.S. natural gas production, according to the MIT professor who led President Obama's subcommittee on shale gas.

A hydraulic fracturing site
Getty Images
A hydraulic fracturing site

John Deutch, also former DOE director of energy research, in the Carter Administration, told a gathering at the annual CERAWeek energy conference Monday night that the shale gas revolution is the most important development in the North American oil and gas industry in the 50 years he's been involved with it.

"I want to stress the tremendous benefits that will come to all Americans if we do this in the right way," he said. If the environmental impacts are not addressed , there is a "very real" chance the industry could be "delayed or even stopped because of public concerns."

Some industry experts at the conference portrayed an industry benefiting from technology faster than regulators can keep up with it. There is now shale gas production in 32 states, and about a third of U.S. natural gas comes from shale, up from just 2 percent in 2000, because of innovations made in fracking and horizontal drilling.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is the use of highly pressurized water, sand and chemicals to free from rock otherwise unattainable natural gas. The technology is credited with giving the U.S. an estimated 100 years of natural gas supply when just several years ago it was expected the U.S. would be a net importer of natural gas. But it is also being blamed for contaminating water supply and seismic activity. One point of public concern has been the lack of reporting on the content of the chemicals used.

Deutch's committee made a series of recommendations, and they covered concerns about water quality and management, air quality and air effects and community impacts.

"The entire issue has to do with active implementations of measures in the field to measure and report," he said. He added that since his report was released last year, there has been little change in the field on the issue of environmental impact.

He also said during the course of the committee's work, there were more anecdotal stories about problems than documented cases, and some of the cases were exaggerated.

Mark Zoback, professor of geophysics at Stanford University, was also part of the shale gas panel as well as a member of the government-tasked panel that studied the Deepwater Horizon well blowout. Zoback said problems in the industry have the same thing in common. "The three things to pay attention to are well construction, well construction, well construction," he said.

Zoback said there are things that can be done by the fracking industry to avoid seismic impact. "When people are feeling the earth move they have a right to be concerned," he said.

Avoiding drilling into an active fault would be the first step, but drillers should also avoid pressure changes at depths and they could also monitor potential activity by installing a seismic network that can be monitored in real time. There then needs to be a plan in place if there is any sign of a problem.

Patrick Schorn, Schlumberger President of Reservoir Production Group, said the industry is already making changes and technology is moving rapidly to improve the process.

For instance, he said the industry is finding that it "overfracks" and that they are learning how to cut back. "30 percent of the fracks don't contribute to the production."

Deutch said industry should take the lead in setting standards, as government cannot move as quickly.

"We do in fact need stronger state and somewhat even stronger federal regulation," said Mark Brownstein, deputy director of the energy program, Environmental Defense Fund, speaking earlier at the conference..

"We need that regulation to evolve as technology evolves," he said.

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