Talking about Natural Gas, Fracking and Trust with Agency Officials and Gas Reps

Earlier this week, I had the chance to have a good, open discussion about natural gas fracking with members of the Obama Administration and representatives from the oil and gas industry.

The Department of Interior gathered us together as part of the administration’s review of the controversial practice of fracking, and I welcomed the chance to explore how we might make fracking safer and more transparent.

NRDC firmly believes that fracking for natural gas is acceptable only if safeguards on the entire extraction process are in place. Right now, that is not the case.

It’s critical that we get this right. As everyone at the panel agreed, natural gas has an important role to play in America’s transition to a cleaner energy future, so long – of course – as the right policies are in place to ensure it is a true transition fuel rather than the end game.  And so long as it is demonstrated to be safe.

Fracking without appropriate safeguards for human health and the environment not only hurts communities, it ultimately hurts the industry. Americans have to trust that companies are following strict safety guidelines if they are going to allow drill pads into their communities. Homeowners want to know their drinking water will be protected.

But when companies resist efforts to disclose chemicals used in their fracking fluid, people assume they are hiding something. If it weren’t poisonous, why wouldn’t you tell us?

At one point during the panel, Steve Black, the counselor to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, asked me why trust and disclosure were so important. I answered by holding up my glass of water and saying, “People aren’t stupid. When companies say their fracking fluid is 97 percent water so don’t worry, that’s not very satisfying. It wouldn’t be very comforting to know that it’s 97 percent water or even 99 percent water if there is 1 percent poison.”

Would you want to drink a glass of water with that percentage of unknown chemicals? Would you want that ratio in your child’s glass? It’s not fair to put the burden on individual citizens to fight big, wealthy corporations in order to confirm that they can drink their water with confidence.

The Department of Interior is beginning to recognize this. It is considering a new policy to require gas companies drilling on federal lands to disclose the chemicals they use in fracking.

Many oil and gas producers are on record showing their support for disclosure. There are exceptions, like Halliburton, which failed to submit its information to the EPA. (A new Halliburton website reveals some information about what they are using in Pennsylvania, but it remains incomplete and it’s still impossible to know what is used at any given location.) But Wyoming, where 100 percent of natural gas wells are fracked, recently became the first state to require disclosure of all fracking chemicals—without industry opposition.

Yet chemical disclosure is just the tip of the iceberg.  Most of us on the panel agreed that companies should use a set of best management practices in order to ensure fracking operations are safe – from soup to nuts. Some of us disagreed, however, about how strongly those practices should be enforced.

NRDC’s view is that there has to be vigorous government oversight. One of the things we learned with the BP disaster is that people in the Gulf weren’t comforted to know that most oil companies drill safely. They just knew that one well went horribly wrong. If we have comprehensive oversight in place for fracking, people will know that corner cutters and risk takers will be held accountable.

This is why we are strongly supporting legislation in New York that would impose a temporary suspension on new hydraulic fracturing until the state adequately examines the risks and ensures that appropriate, enforceable safeguards are in place.

In the end, this will be good for the industry and the nation. If we ignore the dangerous impacts of fracking, we will create more distrust, not to mention risk to human health and the environment. There will be fights at every level. But if we work to reduce or prevent those impacts, the public will be more comfortable with natural gas as a part of the transition to America’s clean energy future.

The very fact that this panel took place shows that the Department of Interior sees the importance of smart natural gas policies. And the fact that all the stakeholders in the room could engage in an honest, unscripted discussion shows that we are closer to putting those policies in place.