DOE panel finds natural gas production presents serious risks to public health and the environment

The Shale Gas Subcommittee (SGS) of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB) just released a draft 90-day report with recommendations to reduce the environmental impacts from shale gas production. This report will be reviewed by the full committee in a public session on Monday, August 15th. NRDC President Frances Beinecke, a member of the SEAB, will participate in that review. (See background section below for the history of this process).    

The report confirms what communities across the country have been reporting for years– that natural gas production is not clean and the industry is in need of a major make-over in order to protect clean air and clean water.

The report contains many important recommendations and calls for critical actions that are needed to protect the environment and human health. We applaud those and want to see them implemented without delay. And that’s a critical point worth emphasizing. We need implementation of new regulations that require these protections and have strong enforcement mechanisms. That’s, of course, essential and must happen immediately at both the state and federal level.

While we don't agree with everything in the report (I’ll get to that later), we do think it’s vital that the secretary: 1) adopt the report; and 2) call on the SGS to come forward with a second set of broader and more comprehensive recommendations in the next three months. The Obama administration should use these recommendations to develop an action plan to quickly apply these recommendations right away. It’s crucial that these recommendations be put into practice, and that they don’t just gather dust on a shelf.

Here are our key takeaways:

Some of the most important conclusions in the Subcommittee’s draft report:

1) The subcommittee found that “There are serious environmental impacts” that have led to public concerns about shale gas production. Will this put an end to industry’s spin that natural gas is “clean”?

The subcommittee stated that: “Intensive shale gas development can potentially have serious impacts on public health, the environment and quality of life – even when individual operators conduct their activities in ways that meet and exceed regulatory requirements.” NRDC disagrees that the impacts are “potential” – we think impacts exist today. But we think this is still an important acknowledgement from the SGS.

2) The subcommittee found that “effective environmental action” must be taken to address potential environmental consequences. The subcommittee calls for strong regulation efforts by both state and federal regulators that evolve and adapt in order to keep up with rapid expansion of production and rapid change in technology and field practice, and that have adequate resources for enforcement. The SGS leaves no doubt that new regulations are needed.

3) The subcommittee found that unique and/or sensitive areas should be off-limits to drilling and support infrastructure.

4) The SGS recognized the need to develop processes for evaluating community impacts, particularly on a cumulative basis, and meaningfully engaging affected communities in planning and decision-making.

The finding that concerned me the most:

The subcommittee’s finding that there is a wide range in procedures followed in the field with regard to well casing, cementing, testing, monitoring, and venting. The subcommittee wrote: “There are no common leakage criteria for intervention in a well that exhibits damage or on the nature of the intervention.”

NRDC has been saying all along that strong federal rules are needed for hydraulic fracturing to ensure that a minimum standard is in place in every state of the nation. Clearly, as recognized by the subcommittee, the current standards vary too widely across states.

Some of SGS’s best recommendations:  

It’s been known for a long time that there are hundreds of straightforward, readily available actions that natural gas producers can take to make their operations safer and cleaner. The industry is in need of a dramatic safety and environmental make-over. The subcommittee has issued a long list of good recommendations, although it does not capture all that is needed. Here are some of the highlights from NRDC’s perspective:

  • Making as much data as possible available to the public through a national database.
  • Emission standards for both new and existing sources for methane, air toxics, ozone-forming pollutants, and other major airborne contaminants resulting from natural gas exploration, production, transportation and distribution activities. The subcommittee points out that the rules recently proposed by EPA only address new sources, and while the SGS does not explicitly express support for the EPA proposal, it sounds like it would support them and calls for even stronger air quality controls. The SGS found that significant air quality impacts are well documented.
  • Collecting more data on air emissions, including greenhouse gasses, and developing a cradle-to-grave assessment of the greenhouse gas emissions.
  • A life cycle approach to water management from the beginning of the production process to the end (disposal), including tracking all water flows and measuring the composition of used frack fluids and produced water.
  • Adoption of best practices in well development and construction, especially casing, cementing, and pressure management, prompt action to repair defective cementing jobs, and inspections at safety-critical stages of well construction and hydraulic fracturing.
  • Eliminating the use of diesel as an additive to hydraulic fracturing fluid.
  • Additional field studies on possible methane leakage from shale gas wells to water reservoirs.
  • Required baseline water quality measurements prior to drilling for gas. NRDC completely agrees that baseline water testing should be required, but it should not be limited to current sources of drinking water, but should also include surface water and any source of water that may, in the future, be used as a source of drinking water. There should also be regular, periodic monitoring post-drilling and fracking--because contaminant migration is most likely to occur over decades.
  • Modernization of rules and enforcement practices
  • Immediate full public disclosure of fracturing fluids, with an exception for genuinely proprietary information. To NRDC, this means full disclosure of every ingredient, with trade secret protection for certain formulas when legally justified. The SGS rightfully pointed out that the voluntary FracFocus website is inadequate because only contents on Material Data Safety Sheets are disclosed, meaning "a large universe of chemicals frequently used in hydraulic fracturing treatments goes unreported.”
  • Science-based characterization of important landscapes, habitats and corridors to inform planning, prevention, mitigation and reclamation of surface impacts.
  • The essential need for assessing cumulative impacts and planning at the regional scale before operations begin.
  • Effective field monitoring and enforcement to inform ongoing assessment of cumulative community and land use impacts.
  • Meaningful involvement of potentially affected communities and landowners in planning and decision-making.
  • Adequate resources for regulatory staff at the state and federal level to issue, inspect and enforce regulations, and methods to assure compliance. The SGS stated: “The nation has important work to do in strengthening the design of a regulatory system that sets the policy and technical foundation to provide for continuous improvement in the protection of human health and the environment,” and called for a better understanding of regulatory effectiveness.

Some areas where we differ from the approach taken by the SGS: 

  • The Subcommittee recommends the creation of a shale gas industry production organization dedicated to continuous improvement of best practice through development of standards, dissemination of these standards, and assessing compliance among its members. As NRDC wrote in our comments to the SGS, we support creation of such an institution, but it should be a third-party organization that is independently organized and managed, such as the Forest Stewardship Council and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification systems, and include input and oversight from a broad range of stakeholders including government, NGOs, academia, and others.
  • The SGS shies away from any statements about drinking water contamination caused by shale gas operations, yet state regulators in Colorado, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, and Ohio have found a direct causal link between natural gas operations and groundwater contamination. The SGS does call for more studies, which we wholeheartedly support. The SGS acknowledges that the current technology being used is very new, but dismisses the likelihood of aquifer contamination. Our experts say that this contamination is possible, and could occur over decades.
  • We disagree with the subcommittee’s assumption that technological advances that improve the efficiency in shale gas production will necessarily reduce environmental impacts. The technological advances that led to the shale gas “revolution” – horizontal drilling combined with hydraulic fracturing – may have reduced some environmental impacts but have also introduced new impacts and concerns.
  • The Subcommittee calls for federal research funding on topics that benefit the public or the industry. NRDC supports federal research on topics that benefit the public, but not for topics that benefit only the industry.

Some recommendations we’d like to see included in the next round: 

NRDC submitted comments to the SGS with our recommendations. Here are some additional things we would have liked to have seen in the SGS report and that we hope will be included in the second round of recommendations:

  • A call for natural gas producers to improve their corporate safety culture with corporate-wide safety and environmental management systems and standards including anonymous tip lines, protections for whistleblowers; mandatory reporting of errors, accidents, violations of requirements, irregular practices, or any actions that otherwise jeopardize the safety and environmental protection of the site or surrounding areas; and shutting down of any operation reported until it is demonstrated that the site is safe and abiding by all standards.
  • Research into human and animal health impacts and the potential cumulative impacts of widespread hydraulic fracturing in various formations, including an assessment of the potential for contaminants to migrate over long time scales subsequent to full-field development, and the associated extensive network of interconnected fractures.
  • Increased financial responsibility requirements (bond, insurance, trust fund, etc.) for oil and gas activities that are adequate to cover all reclamation, potential costs of corrective action, well plugging and abandonment, emergency and remedial response, long-term monitoring, and any clean up action that may be necessary in case of catastrophic events.
  • The SGS fails to mention that there is a severe dearth of understanding about the use of different waste management approaches – how much each are used, their relative impacts, and the ultimate costs and benefits of each. This is an area that demands much more research and analysis before new development can rush forward without new rules in place.

The SGS has made an important contribution toward moving forward on the reforms needed to help protect the environment, public health and communities from the unacceptable impacts of fracking and natural gas production. The explosive growth of fracking makes it imperative that these recommendations are implemented right away. Everything possible must be done to ensure that strong enforceable federal and state regulations are put in place to help protect the environment, public health and communities from the unacceptable adverse impacts of fracking and every other aspect of the natural gas exploration and production process.

If you’d like to submit comments on the draft report or participate in Monday’s public meeting to discuss the report, here’s how you can do that. 


To add some quick context: President Obama called upon Secretary Chu to establish the SGS, and Secretary Chu tasked the SGS to come up with two sets of recommendations.   First, he charged the SGS to come up with a set of recommendations within 90 days. It is these recommendations that the SGS issued yesterday.   Next, he charged the SGS to come up with a further set of recommendations within six months. We hope the SGS will be building toward an even more robust and comprehensive set of regulations in response to that second charge.