Despite Industry Ties, DOE Fracking Panel Warns of “A Real Risk of Serious Environmental Consequences” Absent Regulation

It is the Subcommittee’s judgment that if action is not taken to reduce the environmental impact accompanying the very considerable expansion of shale gas production expected across the country – perhaps as many as 100,000 wells over the next several decades – there is a real risk of serious environmental consequences and a loss of public confidence that could delay or stop this activity.

The consequences to the nation from unrestricted gas fracking could be very serious if multiple actions aren’t taken quickly by energy companies and the government.  That the somewhat surprising conclusion of The Secretary of Energy Advisory Board Subcommittee (SEAB) on Shale Gas Production.

It’s a bit surprising since “six of the seven members have current financial ties to the natural gas and oil industry.”  It just shows how inescapable the dangers are when looked at by serious people.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, pumps water, sand and chemicals underneath shale formations to force out trapped gas. It allows companies to access massive reserves of gas that were formerly unreachable. But drilling operations leak large amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and are associated with a host of problems including groundwater contamination and even earthquakes — see Shale Shocked: “Highly Probable” Fracking Caused U.K. Earthquakes, and It’s Linked to Oklahoma Temblors.

And fracking is poised to become commonplace around the country, as the map from the full report (PDF here) makes clear.

The Subcommittee strongly urged EPA and state regulation of fracking emissions — and that those regulations “explicitly include methane, a greenhouse gas.”  In their first report from August, they recommended:

Measures should be taken to reduce emissions of air pollutants, ozone precursors, and methane as quickly as practicable.

Now they write:

We encourage EPA to complete its current rule making as it applies to shale gas production quickly, and explicitly include methane, a greenhouse gas, and controls from existing shale gas production sources. Additionally, some states have taken action in this area, and others could do so as well.

I testified to the members earlier this year on this matter.  Since other experts raised the groundwater issue, I focused on urging the subcommittee to study the climate issue closely.

I told the committee that peer-reviewed and other research on the total lifecycle emissions of greenhouse gases from unconventional natural gas had raised serious questions about whether it has significantly lower emissions than coal and oil in various applications. Until this issue is resolved, it is unclear whether the federal government should make major investments in promoting natural gas use, including natural gas vehicles. I was glad the committee’s first report called for  analysis to settle this important issue.

But subsequent analysis by independent experts have revealed that natural gas is no panacea for climate change — far from it:

The new SEAB report is just one more piece of evidence that we should hit the pause button on fracking until we resolve the major risks that it poses.

22 Responses to Despite Industry Ties, DOE Fracking Panel Warns of “A Real Risk of Serious Environmental Consequences” Absent Regulation

  1. Wes Rolley says:

    Maybe 50k readers will study this. But how many see the daily onslaught of ads from Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, etc. that tells we have all the natural gas we need for the next 200 years, or that they can extract the tar sands oil with no additional environmental impact, etc. In the case of Chevron, their natural gas ad talks of finding enough in Australia to run the City of Singapore for 50 years.

    So, it becomes obvious that they want us to use it all up as fast as we can and the future be damned. They won’t be around in 2050 and neither will I. But a lot of people are to be married today (11/11/11) and their children will be.

    What kind of world will we leave them?

  2. Andy says:

    It’s clear from this map that the Tar Sands in Alberta are just the beginning for that province. The oil and gas industry are intent on developing all deposits and the Keystone Pipeline is just their business as usual unfolding. I’m sure they plan on many other pipelines to get oil and gas from Shale to existing refineries.

    Bill McKibben is right to draw a line in the sand. It is becoming very apparent that we can’t afford to wait and let oil and gas fizzle out on its own. It’s use must be deliberately ended just as with coal. We have to leave this stuff buried in the ground and yes, find a way to walk away from all that money.

    Al Gore’s graphic in An Inconvenient Truth has come to pass. The U.S. and Canada are looking at a set of scales with gold on one side and the earth on another and we’re thinking “I know we need a place to live, air to breath and food to eat; but man all that gold sure looks good.”

  3. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Wes, their ads are a little premature as regards the development in Australia. There are protests all over the place with some pollies calling for a moratorium, ME

  4. Mark says:

    Looking at how the NE is marcellus ground zero on the map, I then thought about another recent map to appear in these pages… I think it was days over 100 in 2060, or drought, or something like that…. and it was easy to imagine many USA residents relocating towards the NE… but by then the fracking industry may have poisoned the water. Talk about natural consequences

  5. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The International Energy Authority report that this week declared that we had five years only left to avert 2 degrees Celsius of anthropogenic warning (a prediction, in fact, utterly optimistic)was completely ignored by the Australian MSM. There was some salivating interest in the business parasites’ media over the profit opportunities from gas exploitation, but, as to the fate of humanity, total disinterest, as ever.
    The MSM’s approach nowadays is not just to actively deny anthropogenic climate destabilisation (the Murdoch apparatus’s preferred technique)but also to simply not even mention it. It is becoming quite tragi-comic actually. The boofhead end of the denialist continuum gets more and more attention. Recent heavy rains in Victoria, reminiscent of last year’s incessant flooding, are greeted by dullards screeching ‘So much for global warming!’. I imagined that it was quite possible that we would retreat into absolute denial, unprepared to even acknowledge the threat as it grows nearer and more threatening, but to see the process in action is appalling and frightening. Even worse is to contemplate the reaction when this phase of denial is no longer possible. That, I fear, will be dreadful, and destructive.

  6. John Stone says:

    Were any of these plays subject to environmental reviews. It seems we are going into this blindly.

  7. Peter Baldo says:

    When this is finally over, there will be a stratum of crud underlying much of the US. Heck, underlying much of the world. It will be there forever, unless it leaks out through old wells, and cracks in the rock, which might be worse. This stratum will be a permanent marker of our time on the planet.

    I’m not totally opposed to this. I am, however, appalled that nobody seems to be in charge, and that land owners and oil companies can pretty much do whatever they wish. As for state governments, they for the most part lack the expertise, manpower, financial resources, and desire to credibly plan, oversee, and monitor this activity.

  8. Sasparilla says:

    If I remember right, someone got the US congress to pass a bill, years ago, that made fracking plays not subject to EPA oversight. Well spent campaign contributions there.

    Since fracking involves injecting awful stuff into the ground (diesel fuel, carcinogens) this is finally starting to get pushback – in the meantime the players are going as fast as they can for obvious reasons.

    Reminded me of former Senator Gramm writing into law that financial derivatives (big players in the financial crash) were to be completely unregulated during the last decade. There was alot of irony that he was originally going to be McCain’s chief finanacial advisor in 2008 campaign.

  9. Sasparilla says:

    So well said Andy, so well said.

    At this point they’re going for the gold. Hopefully the world changes soon so we stop making that fools choice.

  10. Bob says:

    I got curious as to who these “Industry Ties” were, so I clicked on the link and found who the members of the subcommittee were:

    John Deutch, MIT; Stephen Holditch, Texas A&M; Fred Krupp, Environmental Defense Fund; Kathleen McGinty, Weston Solutions; Susan Tierney, Analysis Group; Daniel Yergin, IHS-Cambridge Energy Research Associates; Mark Zoback, Stanford University.

    Other than Dr. Holditch, I am deeply curious as to just who on that subcommittee has “industry ties”. I took the time and looked them up, as far as I can see this was a subcommittee that knew exactly what outcome they were going to reach before they ever even met.

    I’m sure George Bush could have put together a similar “independent” subcommittee with equally qualified people that would have reached the exact opposite conclusion.

    Would it really have been asking to much to have a subcommittee made up mostly of real scientists, rather than career political hacks? Other than Drs. Holditch and Zoback, the main qualification of the rest seems to be having the proper political mindset and the right connections.

  11. Mauri Pelto says:

    The speed with which the industry is expanding to beat any new regs, by getting the wells started is amazing in PA

  12. Mark says:

    Do not be too hasty to bash the landowners.

    Many people have no say and no control over the strata beneath their property, and even if they do own those mineral rights, most states have rules for compulsory pooling which prevent strata-owning landowners from defending the strata beneath their own property

  13. Mark L. Vines says:

    If we oppose frack jobs too blindly we risk falling off our tightrope. There can be no enhanced or dry-rock geothermal without fracking. The danger of damaging the environment is real. And we cannot afford to let leaks load the atmosphere with more fossil methane. But we may need safer fracking instead of no fracking. As we seek to construct a nonfossil economy, frack geothermal can generate energy at times and in places of poor solar yield, like night, winter and high latitudes. If we reject that option we might regret it.

  14. Hughsbayou says:

    Water is the main issue here, both it’s use and pollution. While it is mostly true that the water injected into the wells is well below the ground water, a lot of it comes back out of the well polluted and must be taken care of in some way. Hopefully it can be reused or purified.

    But the other question is why are they allowed to use water for FREE! It’s a resource that belongs to all, as is the air we breathe and yet these people seem to be able to use as much as they like for a purpose that either destroys it completely (left in the well) or pollutes is so thoroughly it is useless for future use. There is only so much fresh water on the planet and we can’t afford to lose it.

    I would tax the use of the water involved in the process and impose a tax on the air pollution. This would encourage conservation in the process to minimize the tax.

    But then I’m a dreamer.

  15. CB says:

    I find it interesting that fracking operations supposedly leak large quantities of methane. Natural gas is almost entirely methane, and since that is what they are after, every bit they leak is lost money. How does it leak?

  16. Michael Wade says:

    I believe that it was the Cheney Energy Task Force that recommended a series of rules that eventually became law exempting fracking from a number of environmental safe guards (see

  17. Anonymous says:

    If the fracking operations would switch to gas-based techniques rather than the incredibly wasteful water-based techniques, it would be a lot less damaging. The industry didn’t bother to develop this sooner because they’ve been allowed to rest on their laurels cheaply ruining our water; now that someone has developed it, they don’t want to switch because it costs more… they will have to be forced to, if we can ever manage to end the legislative coddling of the oil/gas industry.

  18. Raindog says:

    I am for anything that will make the process of shale gas extraction cleaner. But as someone who cares about the environment, I am strongly for shale gas. Current low gas prices are largely due to the shale gas revolution. These low gas prices have already led to decisions to close many of the worst old belching coal plants. That is a fact.

    You keep giving credence to the Howarth et al. study from Cornell that found that shale gas emits more GHGs than coal. That study has been debunked and refuted by no less than five far more knowledgeable groups. Remember Howarth is a biologist who knows nothing about oil and gas production. This was immediately obvious upon reading of his paper. A Previous study by MIT, and subsequent studies by NETL, Worldwatch Institute, Carnegie Mellon (funded by the Sierra Club), and the University of MAryland all found that on a life cycle basis shale gas emits 55% of the GHGs of coal. Howarth should be on the climate disinformer “wall of shame.”

    The other study you referred to above that says that switching from coal to gas isn’t going to help us with global warming isn’t what your are portraying it to be. The main point is that the particulate matter in coal (i.e. pollution) is an aerosol that is reflecting some light back into space before it enters the atmosphere. Gas has no associated particulates (neither does wind or solar!) Most of the warming this paper talks about comes from losing the particulate matter in the atmosphere. Do you really want that to be how we fend off climate change? OF course there is always the fact that the particulate matter is killing tens of thousands of people per year prematurely as well. Replacing coal with gas wind and solar makes sense. Let’s do it now.

  19. Joan Savage says:

    That’s why I’d rather see a multifaceted regulatory system that would still be useful as technology changes.

    1) mandatory environmental impact statements for each technology and each site,
    2) posted bond by property owner to fully cover any damages incurred by the lessee on site or off site (and that would mean a whopping up-front payment by the lessee), 3) dismantling “compulsory integration” that coerces other property owners.
    Probably more facets, but those could work for either hydrofracking or gasfracking.

  20. Joan Savage says:

    Off-site sounds too general, but there’s a bunch of liabilities that can fall to property owners. Contaminants leach off site. Noise reaches off site. Damage to local roads incurs expense to local taxpayers.

  21. dbmetzger says:

    the cbc on Keystone

    Keystone XL Pipeline Reroute Doesn’t Change Timeline
    Washington has warned that a plan to re-route the Keystone XL pipeline through US state of Nebraska won’t mean approval will come any faster.

  22. Raindog says:

    It is a huge mistake for organizations concerned about climate change to associate themselves with the anti-fracking movement. The anti-fracking people are deeply misinformed and that will be exposed – has anyone ever noticed that they pretty much never find water contaminated with frack fluids? That no one is getting sick or dying? That no drinking water supplies are radioactive? That contrary to the Ponzi scheme accusation that 30% of our natural gas comes from shale now? That the worst coal plants are closing sooner than they had planned and stating clearly that this is due to cheap natural gas from shale? That s a result of this our GHG emissions are going down? That despite the rise of shale gas wind and solar are booming? Pretty much everything the anti-fracking people are worried about or say is going to happen is not happening. The reason is simple – those leading the movement don’t know what they are talking about. They are being led by an avant-garde filmmaker with no interest in science.