New report from DOE panel finds slow progress on protecting the public from the risks of natural gas development

Today the Shale Gas Subcommittee (SGS) of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB) released a draft of its final report. The report focuses on implementation of the recommendations in the Subcommittee's 90-day report, issued in August. In August NRDC said that the recommendations did not go far enough, but that they were a good start toward protecting the environment and human health, and should be implemented without delay.

Today, the SGS said that "the progress to date is less than the Subcommittee hoped...." The SGS found that, of its 20 recommendations, 14 are "ready for implementation," and comments on the status of each. The key take-away from today's document?

The subcommittee concluded that if action is not taken to reduce the environmental impact of shale gas production, there will be little credible progress toward reducing the environmental impact and a real risk of serious environmental consequences...."

This lack of action is the reason why the CEOs of the nation's largest environmental organizations wrote to President Obama last week and asked him to issue an executive order directing agencies in his administration to adopt any subcommittee recommendations that apply to them without delay.

Some highlights of the report:

  • Regarding protection of clean water, the SGS found that "neither EPA or the states are engaged in developing a systems/lifecycle approach to water management," and that "the present arrangement of shared federal and state responsibility for cradle-to-grave water quality is not working smoothly or as well as it should."
  • When it comes to controlling air pollution, the SGS supports the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed new rules to control dangerous emissions from natural gas facilities, but calls on EPA to extend these rules to all sources, to directly regulate methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and to avoid weakening requirements for the natural gas industry to report its greenhouse gas emissions. NRDC agrees.
  • The SGS supports the Department of the Interior's stated plan to issue a new rule requiring the disclosure of hydraulic fracturing chemicals. NRDC agrees, but thinks DOI needs to go much farther in updating its standards for oil and gas leasing. DOI has taken some steps in leasing reform, but as the nation's largest manager of oil and gas resources, DOI needs to do more. It can and should be a model for reducing the environmental footprint of natural gas production. DOI should require the most effective methods into leasing of federal minerals and illustrate how to best protect public health and the environment.
  • The SGS supports the EPA's scientific study into the impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water, but points out that no one should wait until the study's final conclusions to take action--given what we know today about the risks. The subcommittee also calls for an end to diesel use in fracking.

In August, NRDC said that the 90-day report was a good start but that the SGS should include a second set of broader and more comprehensive recommendations in its final report. The SGS did not take that step. We also called on the Obama administration to develop an action plan to implement the recommendations right away. That hasn't happened either.

As NRDC's President, Frances Beinecke, blogged, we can't support fracking unless we're convinced that local communities, watersheds and habitat are protected to the maximum possible extent from the risks it presents, and that state and federal authorities have the tools they need to enforce essential safeguards. Unfortunately, as today's SGS report reveals, regulators have still not taken enough action to ensure the needed level of protection.

This report will be reviewed by the SEAB in a public session on Monday, November 14th. NRDC President Frances Beinecke, a member of the SEAB, will participate in that review. Members of the public can submit written comments on this draft report; directions for doing that are on the DOE website.

Thanks to Kit Kennedy for co-writing this blog post.