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Industry-Dominated DOE Panel Recognizes Dangers of Fracking

On August 11, 2011, after 90 days of deliberation, a seven-member U.S. Department of Energy (“DOE”) advisory panel released an interim report presenting recommendations to reduce the environmental impacts from shale gas production. The panel’s recommendations may serve as a major turning point in the shale gas extraction debate, as although the panel report offers few specifics, it represents the industry acknowledging that shale gas extraction via fracking is a major environmental problem in need of effective regulatory solutions.

At least one major industry group dismissed the report, alleging that the panel lacked the necessary knowledge of the oil and gas business. Yet, six of seven panel members are part of or closely associated with the shale gas business.

While the panel did not offer details on how to make shale gas extraction safer, it cautioned the shale gas industry to clean up its act or its business could suffer.

“Overall, the impact on the environment has to go down,” said Jack Deutch, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who leads the panel. “If the public is not comfortable that these environmental issues are not being rigorously managed by regulators and industry, there is a threat to production.”

The panel’s recommendations regarding shale gas production included:

  • Making information about operations more accessible to the public via a national database;
  • Using technology and best practices to immediately reduce air emissions;
  • Conducting a thorough assessment of the greenhouse gas footprint from cradle-to-grave use;
  • Tracking water use and disposal from the beginning of the production process to disposal;
  • Immediate and complete disclosure of chemicals used in fracking fluids;
  • Greater attention to cumulative impacts on communities, land use, wildlife and ecologies;
  • The development of industry best practices; and
  • Greater federal support for research and development.

The panel did align with industry in noting that is “improbable” that fracking fluids could contaminate groundwater. But the panel also found “there is no economic or technical reason to prevent public disclosure” of the chemicals. The benefit of addressing public concern about the composition of the fracking fluids “outweighs the restriction on company action, the cost of reporting, and any intellectual property value of proprietary chemicals.”

Furthermore, the report clearly emphasizes the need for stricter regulation noting: “effective and capable regulation is essential to protect the public interest. The challenges of protecting human health and the environment in light of the anticipated rapid expansion of shale gas production require the joint efforts of federal and state regulators. This means that resources dedicated to oversight of the industry must be sufficient to do the job and there is adequate regulatory staff at the state and federal level with the technical expertise to issue, inspect and enforce regulations.”

View complete copy of the report.

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