Natural gas extraction practices present a broad range of environmental risks, including to air, water, land, community character, and public health. Although the full measure of those risks remains a subject of evolving science, many practices and technologies do currently exist to reduce the known risks. Unfortunately, they are not uniformly adopted by producers voluntarily, nor are they uniformly required by law. And while some states and the federal government have recently taken steps to improve gas production regulations, many significant gaps remain.
NRDC supports moratoria on fracking where possible to give states and communities time to fully evaluate the risks and determine whether it’s possible—and if so, how—to protect against them. In the meantime, however, where moratoria do not exist, people are being exposed to unacceptably high levels of risk right now. Where this is the case, these communities are in need of urgent protections against immediate threats as a last line of defense.
To help better protect those communities, NRDC is embarking on a new project to disclose and reduce the known environmental and health impacts from the production of natural gas. Many of the tens of millions of customers across the country who use natural gas have told their suppliers that they want the gas that they buy to be produced in ways that are better and safer for the environment and public health. In answer to this demand, NRDC is convening a group of stakeholders to develop a certification process using existing, leading environmental practices to encourage natural gas producers to improve environmental performance. These tools will allow individual utilities, working with their regulatory commissions, and other gas purchasers to take steps to reduce the impacts of gas production.
That said, as we explore this effort, we want to be clear about what it will and will not do:
- It will not make natural gas clean or safe. Natural gas is a fossil fuel. Producing and using it creates greenhouse gas pollution that warms the climate. Extraction practices can result in serious environmental and human health impacts. We know that our nation’s number one energy priority must be building a future centered on clean, safe, renewable sources of power, used efficiently, that ends our dependence on fossil fuels as quickly as possible. But this won’t happen overnight, and in the meantime we need the strongest possible safeguards to protect communities currently living in harm’s way.
- It will not be a substitute for regulation. Voluntary actions will never be a substitute for strong, enforceable regulations, and this program is in no way meant to be an alternative to legally binding rules. Rather, this program is only one part of the larger effort to protect people and the environment from the risks of natural gas production at the federal, state, and local level.
- It will not be an NRDC “stamp of approval.” In order to be successful, this program must be achievable while also meaningfully improving environmental performance. The best way to accomplish these twin goals is to create standards that incorporate guidance from a broad group of experts. As such, while NRDC is convening this effort, the final product will reflect the consensus of a wide array of stakeholders. Furthermore, it will be up to individual gas purchasers to choose whether or not to follow the recommendations we eventually create. And the actual program will not be administered by NRDC itself, but rather by a third party.
- It will focus on the Rocky Mountain region. Differences in geography, geology, and other factors can create unique environmental threats in different places. The standards with which producers must comply in order to be certified need to address these unique local and regional environmental impacts. This certification effort will focus on the Rocky Mountain region, and the particular operating conditions, environmental challenges, and existing regulatory frameworks in these states. Our hope is to develop a program here that can help be a basis to expand to other regions.
- It will apply to all types of natural gas. The program won’t be limited to only fracked gas or shale gas or any other sub-category but rather will be applicable to all gas production, including so-called “associated gas” produced with oil. Natural gas produced in the Rocky Mountain region comes from a big range of sources, including conventional, tight gas, and coalbed methane. The people and places where this development is occurring all face environmental and health risks, regardless of where the gas comes from and what techniques are used to produce it.
- It will build on existing, available, effective best practices. State regulation of oil and gas production varies widely, with some states having written all new rules in the past several years, to others that haven’t updated regulations in decades. Some producers go beyond what is required by regulation in some places, while others do only the bare minimum of what is required. This patchwork is both a problem and an opportunity. By taking the best of what leading Rocky Mountain states and producers are already doing and asking producers to apply those practices throughout the region, this program will help ensure that consistent, proven, leading safeguards based on the most current science are used everywhere. However in some cases, the current best isn’t good enough, so our project will also seek to push practices forward to get real improvements in environmental performance on the ground.
This project is in the very early stages and there is a great deal of work to be done. In the coming weeks and months we’ll be sitting down with utilities, suppliers, producers, regulators, academics, fellow NGOs, and other stakeholders to explore strategies to improve the way industry does business. We don’t know what is possible, but we are optimistic that customer demand for responsibly produced natural gas can be a powerful and transformative force for good.
Natural gas will never be clean, producing it will never be 100% safe, and this project will only be one part of protecting people and the environment from the risks. But it is an opportunity to help ensure oil and gas are more responsibly developed than current practices – even as we do everything in our power to move us beyond fossil fuels as quickly as possible.