The US Department of Energy issued a report saying that hydraulic fracturing can be done safely, but that operators need to follow a set of four recommendations to increase safety mainly through improved monitoring and reporting.
Water utilities have watched fracking closely because of the possible contamination of groundwater with the myriad chemicals injected underground to release the natural gas, especially in formations under Pennsylvania, New York, Colorado and Texas.
Reaction to the report was mixed, with some environmental groups praising the calls for increased reporting by the gas companies. One academic environmental group, however, criticized the report as having concluded that fracking is safe without enough evidence. The natural gas industry said the report was a "useful starting point for further discussions."
The recommendations are:
1. "Making information about shale gas production operations more accessible to the public."
This has been a point of concern from water utilities because the gas drillers have generally refused to release the names of the chemicals injected into the ground, so water utilities don't even know what to test for when looking for fracking chemical contamination. The report specifically calls for government funding of the Ground Water Protection Council’s "Risk Based Data Management System."
The report also calls for a national database of public information related to fracking.
2. "Immediate and longer-term actions to reduce environmental and safety risks of shale gas operations, with a particular focus on protecting air and water quality"
The report calls on the companies doing the fracking to measure and publicly report everything about the flow of water in their operations. It also calls on the companies to develop best practices in well development and construction, especially related to casing and cementing.
The DOE also called on the monitoring agencies to update their rules to make sure groundwater and surface water are fully protected.
3. "Creation of a shale gas industry operation organization committed to continuous improvement of best operating practices."
The DOE wants this new panel to establish standards for fracking and to have the industry monitor itself to ensure that all operators meet those standards.
4. "Research and development to improve safety and environmental performance."
The DOE said that the industry should do most of the research into safe gas extraction, but that the government may have some part to play in setting environmental standards.
The report was released by the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board. One member of congress, Maurice D. Hinchey, D-N.Y., said that he thought the recommendations were a good first step even though he was concerned because "six of the seven members on the Natural Gas Subcommittee have financial ties to the natural gas industry, which inherently creates a conflict of interest."
The panel is now charged with coming up with more specific recommendations.
At the same time the US Environmental Protection Agency recently said that it has started a study of fracking's effects on drinking water.
Additional AWWA Resources
- AWWA Streamlines: "Duke study stokes debate on fracking and water," May 17, 2011; "Fracking advocates, opponents speak out," July 27, 2010; "Fracking's 'up' side," July 13, 2010; "Fracking raises concerns about sapping water supplies," June 29, 2010; "Water woes spark tougher regs for gas well drilling," June 8, 2010; "Oil spill fuels fracking fracas," May 25, 2010
- Opflow, "Hydrofracking: Is it worth the risk?," July 2011
- Journal AWWA, "Security and Preparedness - The threat from hydrofracking," September 2010
Scott Yates, Contributing Editor