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A double standard for natural gas?

By Climate Guest Contributor  

"A double standard for natural gas?"

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The natural gas industry wants to have its cake and eat it, too — after cooking it with some shale gas, of course.  Guest bloggers Richard W. Caperton Policy Analyst at CAP, and Tom Kenworthy, a Senior Fellow, has the story of the industry latest effort to bypass safeguards for the controversial drilling technique known as “hydraulic fracturing.”

According to E&E Daily (subs. req’d.)

The latest draft of the climate and energy bill being written by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) reportedly includes language saying U.S. EPA would not regulate the oil and gas drilling technique.

Hopefully, this is just wishful thinking by gas companies, rather than a proposal that’s actually in the comprehensive, bipartisan clean energy and global warming legislation under development by the three senators.

The EPA should have the ability to protect people from all potential sources of drinking water contamination, including hydraulic fracturing (also known as “fracking”).  Recognizing the potential threat to water supplies, the EPA announced last week it will undertake a major study of the process to see if it poses dangers to public health and safety.

In the fracking process, a solution of water, sand and chemicals is injected into underground rock formations.  This cracks the rock, releasing natural gas that wasn’t previously recoverable.  Unfortunately, as CAP’s Tom Kenworthy recently explained, there’s a risk that the chemicals in fracking fluids will pollute nearby drinking water sources.  This is especially important in light of today’s news report (subscription req’d.) that a gas drilling company has violated an agreement with the government and injected diesel fuel near drinking water aquifers. “One of the world’s largest oilfield services companies continued to tell U.S. EPA it was complying with an agreement barring the injection of diesel fuel near drinking-water aquifers, documents show, after admitting to Congress that it had violated the pact,” according to the report.

If the industry succeeds in getting a fracking exemption in Senate energy and climate legislation, it would expand special treatment for hydraulic fracturing that started with the Energy Policy Act of 2005 that exempted the process from EPA regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Allegedly, the draft proposal would also protect the oil and gas industry from having to publicly disclose the chemicals they use, which removes neighbors’ right to know about the risk posed by adjacent drilling.

While fracking is a decades old practice, huge new discoveries of shale gas in the U.S. mean that the drilling technique is increasingly widespread. New horizontal drilling technologies, using fracking, have opened up giant reserves of gas from the West to the mid-Atlantic states. This “gas gale” has opened up new possibilities for replacing old, polluting coal-fired electric plants with cleaner and less polluting plants fired by natural gas.  In the years ahead, greater demand will mean more gas production, and more fracking. often in states that have relatively little experience in ensuring that a drilling boom is done responsibly.

If fracking is exempted from EPA regulation, the risk of drinking water contamination will remain.  By definition, this pollution  is an externality – an extra cost of production, except society rather than gas producers bear this cost.  The whole theory of a new clean energy economy is that the externalities of fossil fuel production and combustion – carbon pollution — should be included in energy prices.  Indeed, this is exactly why natural gas would benefit from a price on carbon pollution: incorporating the cost of carbon dioxide emissions into power costs will raise the price of power from coal, making natural gas electricity cost-competitive.

It’s hypocritical for the natural gas industry to propose that other industries have their externalities priced, while the externalities from fracking go unpriced.

Environmental safeguards are an essential component of energy development, and no industry should receive blanket exemptions.  This applies to both renewable and fossil fuel industries.  For instance, solar power developers in California’s Mojave Desert have to contend with delicate endangered species habitats.  Instead of simply saying that the Endangered Species Act doesn’t apply to solar developers, the right approach is to find locations that avoid critical habitats.  Similarly, the right approach for fracking is not to say that the Safe Drinking Water Act doesn’t apply to natural gas production, but to make sure that natural gas drilling doesn’t contaminate water supplies and to require energy companies to disclose the chemicals they use so that if contamination does occur public health officials can respond appropriately.

Of course, some companies have billions of dollars riding on avoiding federal standards for fracking, most notably Exxon Mobil and natural gas company XTO.  Exxon has offered to buy XTO and its natural gas reserves for an astounding $31 billion, but a clause deep in the contract gives Exxon the right to back out of the deal if the federal government makes fracking “illegal or commercially impracticable.”

Should Congress create different rules for the natural gas industry just so this merger can go through?  Is it reasonable for the natural gas industry to benefit from unpriced externalities?  If Congress exempts fracking from additional EPA safeguards, they will clearly be saying, “Yes,” to both of those questions.  Senators Kerry, Graham and Lieberman must not issue a blank check to natural gas producers who would prefer to keep their chemicals secret while society bears the cost of their use.

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17 Responses to A double standard for natural gas?

  1. Rahj Majendra says:

    Fracturing methods are not drilling techniques. They are processes for enhanced recovery. For non energy people, there is a lot of fear for methods they do not understand. Geothermal drilling is an example of “fracking” that is dangerous.

  2. MiMo says:

    If environmentalist are not ready to sacrifice their other priorities and goals (endangered species protection, EPA strict regulations) for the fight against global warming why should anyone else do it?

    [JR: Well, I have long said that global warming trumps most every other environmental concern. But it shouldn't interfere with protection of human health now -- and frankly I have talked to natural gas companies and experts on fracking who say that it can be done in an open and environmentally sound fashion. Also, natural gas is NOT zero emissions. So it is only a bridge fuel. So what the nation should be willing to do on behalf of natural gas is not the same as what it should be willing to do on behalf of, say, wind or solar.]

  3. John McCormick says:

    MiMo, slow down. The concern people have for assuring groundwater is not contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals is not something to sacrifice.

    John McCormick

  4. mike roddy says:

    If natural gas is a bridge fuel, it appears to be a very long bridge. Domestic reserves accessible through fracking may enable gas to essentially replace coal, at least through 2050.

    Are we sure we want to do this? Population and electricity demand could increase enough by 2050 to essentially wipe out the 50% emissions advantage held by gas. We would be right back where we started. Obviously, that is not even a reasonable prospect, unless people think that we can sacrifice Florida (flooded) and Arizona (too hot and dry) in order to keep everything humming in our big houses.

  5. fj2 says:

    2. MiMo (Joe Romm response: “[JR: Well, I have long said that global warming trumps most every other environmental concern."]

    Agreed! The extreme environmental crisis (hopefully) will be a big (benevolent) stick to override lots of petty self-interests and irrational concerns.

    [JR: It ain't benevolent. And concerns about toxic pollutants aren't irrational. Quite the reverse.]

  6. Raindog says:

    I have been so pleased to see Joe Romm supporting shale gas. It really does give us a chance to significantly reduce our carbon emissions while we hopefully move towards more renewable energy. It also could help put off peak oil for a while which will really help with carbon emissions and other problems for a decade or more. This post is clearly by someone who knows nothing about the industry but insists on fanning the flames of fear.

    When done correctly there is very little chance that drinking water will be contaminated. There are two main ways contamination could occur. One is an accidental spill on the surface. Of course this could happen at any time in a number of different industries and there is certainly no reason that this one should be singled out. A truck carrying a windmill could get in an accident and spill diesel fuel that could get into the aquifer. The other way that contamination could occur is if there is a bad cement job on the well. when they drill the wells they drill a hole and then run steel pipe all the way down the hole that is called casing. They don’t want the frack fluid or the gas to come up the outside of the pipe between the hole and the pipe so they pump cement in and force it up into the area between the casing and the bedrock. This isolates the fresh water aquifer near the top of the well from the zone where the gas is. Be clear that it is in the companies’ financial interest that the cement job be a good one. The last thing they want is a leak because that costs them money. They want the frac fluid to go into the formation not back up outside the casing. If it is coming up the outside of the casing then it isn’t fracing the rock and that is the point of the frac job. Furthermore, they want the gas to come back up the inside of the pipe where they can capture and sell it. If it comes up the outside they are losing money. There have been a few cases where there were bad cement jobs and this has resulted in some very minor contamination. A few water wells have needed to be shut in but this is after hundreds of thousands of gas wells have been drilled and fracked. The people whose wells were contaminated have been reimbursed and are having water provided to them. They are also getting rich from the gas production on their land. There is no such thing as a risk-free source of energy. Windmills collapse and kill bats and birds too.

    In my opinion the people fighting the shale gas drilling have a bigger hypocrisy issue to overcome. they say they want to fight global warming but they are fighting against the thing that could provide the greatest reduction in CO2 emissions that is out there at the moment. Really stupid and shortsighted. At the top of the list of hypocrites is ProPublica who has led the disinformation campaign. In fact this post sounds like it was lifted right out of a ProPublica article. A lot of these same people fight wind projects in their neighborhoods as well. What this does is keep us burning coal!

    [JR: I have supported replacing coal with gas for a long time and been writing about shale gas as a game-changer for a year now, as first link shows.]

  7. fj2 says:

    re: “[JR: It ain't benevolent. And concerns about toxic pollutants aren't irrational. Quite the reverse.]”

    Probably wasn’t clear:

    Concerns about toxic pollutants aren’t irrational. Producing toxic pollutants is irrational; and there is a no need to produce toxic pollutants.

    The big benevolent stick is overriding such actions and distractions to get the job done.

  8. Milan says:

    The amount of climate change the world will experience is determined by humanity’s cumulative emissions of greenhouse gases. If we are to have any chance of staying below the oft-cited ‘dangerous’ level of 2°C of warming, the great majority of the world’s remaining fossil fuels will need to remain underground. Those unconventional gas reserves are not a boon to be exploited, as some suggest, but rather a danger to be feared.

  9. fj2 says:

    8. Milan,

    Agreed! Does not seem to make an awful lot of sense to continue to burn stuff.

    6000 times the amount of energy reaches this planet everyday in the form of solar than is required by our energy needs; and, this huge surplus exists and surrounds us in many ways.

    Heat is distributed kinetic energy. Wind is just concentrated kinetic energy, etc., etc.

  10. Raindog says:

    And another thing! – Propublica and the people fighting shale gas use tactics eerily similar to the climate disinformers and the anti-health care reform tea-party crowd. They continue to repeat claims that have been debunked, they personally attack civil servants who are just doing their jobs like people from the NY Dept of Environmental Conservation and they whip up fear in the uninformed. They continue to scare people that they are going to get cancer from frac fluids. There is absolutely no evidence that this is true yet they repeat it over and over again.

    As a proud liberal I have been really disheartened by the entire anti-shale gas movement. I guess some people are always ready to believe the worst about oil and gas companies (maybe with some justification). But take the time to learn the facts!

    I heard a friend saying that he thought people should heat with wood instead of gas. The entire country would be clearcut after a year or two if everyone switched their heating source to wood. Talk about environmental disasters! Others have said we should go with wind over gas. I am all for wind, but we would need millions of windmills to equal the energy we get from gas and coal. Do you really want to have that many windmills around? They also require transmission lines which require cutting down more trees and are visually unappealing. There would be wires everywhere.

    The strongest opposition to shale gas comes from areas where there hasn’t been much drilling in the past. In places where drilling has occurred before there is little opposition because people know that it isn’t that big a deal and that there is a great upside in terms of jobs and revenues.

  11. David Smith says:

    Mike Roddy @ #4 – Interesting comment. I am not sure that there is a point to a lower emission bridge source unless you actually cap the amount of energy produced and use the bridge fuel only to replace existing capacity.

    If demand keeps growing and we keep producing to the demand, this is a foolhardy strategy that will almost certainly not produce the results intended.

  12. I’ve been looking into this for a while now. One must question the motives of a group that would keep such practices secret under the guise of “trade secret.” They want to pump toxic substances into the subsurface: Why should they get a pass on revealing what they discharge, when others most certainly do not. An under-appreciated fact: under the Clean Water Act, a discharger cannot claim confidentiality for effluent data–read: compounds discharged to surface waters under an National Point Discharge Elimination System Permit.

    And all of this begs the question: where’s the evidence that fracking must be done with other than benign substances? Upping the ante, if the practice is really safe, why are the drillers not clamoring to add tracers to the fracking fluids, so that their fate and transport can be tracked over time? I’d think they would jump at the idea.

    Another under-appreciated fact: the 2004 EPA study which concluded the process can be done safely (for coal bed methane fracking, anyway) based that conclusion in part on the fact that there’s a rigorous regulatory backstop: the process fell under the Underground Injection Control Program of the Safe Drinking Water Act. But then the 2005 Energy Act gave them a pass (except for diesel fuel injection) on that. Get it? The 2004 study was used to justify the exemption, but the study’s conclusion of safety was based on a rigorous regulatory backstop, which the exemption nullified. Oh Congress! So much work! So little time!

    One final point. People simply don’t want business done this way. The hazardous waste issues exposed at Love Canal, and other places, opened people’s eyes to the fact that they must stay informed. Approaches targeting limiting our ability to be informed are non-starters.

  13. another alum says:

    not to go too offtopic from fracking, but Joe, could you address the issue of leaks from nat gas pipelines and other infrastructure? I have seen claims that such leaks offset the carbon benefits of NG vs other fossil fuels.

  14. It is proven, over and over again, that hydrofracking pollutes water supplies. Not only because the toxic fluid that is left in the ground seeps into aquifers, not only because irresponsible workers dump horrific amounts of wastewater into streams, not only because wells blow up spontaneously, not only because methane and radon are released into private water supplies during the fracking process (not only ruining the water, but usually causing the home to be condemned as well), but because it is inherently a volatile process. There is nothing safe about it. We already know that the chemicals used include neurotoxins, mutagens and carcinogens. In New York State we sit about 1/4 of the worlds fresh water. If that supply becomes contaminated, what do you think is going to happen to humanity, not to mention the rest of animal and plant life?

    It’s time to get off fossil fuels, period. The energy companies need to have an incentive to turn their efforts toward renewable energy, otherwise humanity will be toast by the end of the century.

  15. And to Raindog:

    You are misinformed my friend. The fluids used in hydrofracking have been reverse engineered and we DO know what’s in them. See my post at http://www.sustaintheworld.com/hydrofracking.html. There would be no boom to the local economy; they don’t hire locals. Instead, there would be an increase in prostitution, and an increased strain on our hospitals, and industrialization of our pristine landscape of unheard of proportions. 10,000 wells in southern New York are proposed – could be one well every 20 acres, or one well every 40 acres…. I don’t consider that to be “minor” by any means. You can also see my Youtube video which is a summation of the first open forum on Hydrfracking from October 2009.

    Personally, I have found the hydrofracking activists in New York to be highly informed, highly educated, and willing to spend untold hours of volunteered time and energy researching it to make sure they have the truth. And, in all the hearings I’ve attended, I have yet to hear Chesapeake Energy mention their plans for the wastewater, or cumulative impact, even once.

    In terms of the DEC, we understand how incredibly understaffed and underfunded the organization is, and thus how wrong it is to burden them to prove “cumulative impact” of hydrofracking.

  16. MiMo, slow down. The concern people have for assuring groundwater is not contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals is not something to sacrifice.

  17. Raindog says:

    Meg et al.,

    Where to begin?

    “There would be no boom to the local economy” – Even if they don’t hire locals(which they almost certainly will as time passes) the people who own the land will make a lot of money. These are mainly very poor people, many of whom are currently in danger of losing their land. They will get upwards of $5000/acre just to lease it plus 1/8 of the gross from the sale of the gas which could be another $20,000 an acre. A farmer with 100 acres stands to make hundreds of thousands of dollars. People who were worried about losing their farms may be able to keep them and think abut sending their kids to college. These people will spend that money where they live for the most part. Tax revenues will rise making schools and other services better for everyone.

    “There will be an increase in prostitution” – where do you get that? It may be true but I am not sure where that comes from.

    “industrialization of our pristine landscape of unheard of proportions. 10,000 wells in southern New York are proposed – could be one well every 20 acres, or one well every 40 acres” – there are many wells that might be drilled but your spacing is way off. From what I understand they are going to have one well site every 480 acres and drill 6 wells from each site. Because they are drilling deviated wells they can angle them away from teh surface location and cover a broad area from one site. They will need to clear an area of about 5 acres around the well site. 5/480 = about 1/100 of the land being cleared plus a dirt road. When it is done and the drilling rig and the trucks leave it will look something like a farm outbuilding with some relatively small tanks and pipes coming out of the ground. They will reclaim all but one or two acres around the wells site. Most of them will be invisible to the people living in the area after a few years.

    I think it is fear of the unknown that has driven this intense reaction for the most part. Once it starts happening, and it definitely is going to happen, people will calm down. I am sure your heart is in the right place but I wish you and others like you would spend this time on climate change instead of trying to block something that could actually decrease our CO2 emissions.