A Department of Energy committee issued a report this week calling upon the natural gas extraction industry to fully disclose chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing fluids and to keep track of all water flows connected with fracking operations; it also said state regulatory agencies should review existing rules to check their adequacy in the light of the revolution in unconventional gas that's been sweeping much of the United States.
Those recommendations may seem the equivalent of white Wonder bread, but for an industry that traditionally has kept a low profile and avoided the public eye, they may have real significance. Last year, reporting an article for IEEE Spectrum about the water implications of fracking, I was startled to discover that almost all of the companies in the business—mostly small, with names I had never heard before—had no press or public relations offices and did not return phone calls. And these companies, on the rare occasion I was able to smoke anybody out, told me bluntly that they saw no percentage in communicating with me. (This was unprecedented in my 35 years working as a reporter.)
One such company suffered a major accident in Pennsylvania fracking operations earlier this month, prompting aggressive calls for full disclosure of what went wrong and all environmental implications.
The DOE advisory subcommittee on shale gas production, chaired by MIT’s John Deutch, was convened by Energy Secretary Chu at the direction of President Obama, who has said that unconventional gas represents a big opportunity for the country but must be exploited in ways consistent with the environment.
Among other things, the panel recommended that the government support "existing, multistakeholder mechanisms" for tracking operations and assessing risks, such as the Ground Water Protection Council’s Risk Based Data Management System. It suggests additional field studies to determine whether and how methane from fracking operations is finding its way into reservoirs or wells, and reminds industry and public authorities that air quality as well as water is an issue.
Emissions from natural gas pipelines and extraction operations are a major issue in their own right, inasmuch as methane is a potent greenhouse gas. (One of the more startling watchdog groups I hear from regularly is Natural Gas Watch, which sends a weekly e-mail headed "This Week in Natural Gas Leaks and Explosions.") In a perfect world without gas leakage, generating electricity from gas produces between a third and a half as much GHG as coal-generated power. But to the extent gas leaks, that advantage is reduced or possibly even canceled.