Half-way report in fracking from US DoE - full of half-measures?

By Martin Leggett - 12 Aug 2011 17:59:0 GMT
Half-way report in fracking from US DoE - full of half-measures?

The direction of travel for the administration's handling of the fracking furore became a little clearer yesterday, as the US Department of Energy shale gas panel released its interim report. Sharing of information, adoption of 'best practices' and encouraging state-level regulation were the key phrases, liberally scattered through the report.

Noticeably absent were any hints of a broader environmental framework for policing the mining of resources; or any notions of pulling the plug on fracking, which has been plagued by environmental concerns recently. Those environmental concerns are to be addressed, says the report; but the idea of the shale gas boom as a solution to the nation's energy woes is left firmly in play.

Publishing fracking fluids make-up

The DoE review of fracking - a drilling technology to squeeze natural gas from buried shales - was kicked into life earlier this year. As states, such as New York, baulked at the rising tide of polluted rivers, toxic spills and flaming tap-water left in the driller's wake, President Obama tasked Energy Secretary Steven Chu with handling the fall-out. His department set up the Shale Gas Production Subcommittee, which was to review the safety issues and environmental problems with fracking.

The final review is not due for 3 months, but this half-way report provides a window on the most likely recommendations. There's an admission that the industry fallen between the legislative cracks, with the calls for more openness and information for the public.

For example, the chemical cocktail that makes up each driller's fracking fluid should be published, says the report. Until now, companies have hidden their exact make-up behind, citing the 'intellectual property value of proprietary chemicals.'

Water management to mop up spill worries

And the panel is also keen to see drillers taking into account the whole life-history of water use for each well - an integrated water management system.

They say such an approach 'has the potential for greatly reducing the environmental footprint and risk of water use in shale gas.' As with many of the recommendations, though, the details are to be left to discussions between the shale gas industry and the relevant regulatory agencies.

Some of the concerns about fracking are, however, punted away. Whilst the importance of working out the carbon footprint of shale gas - a recent study suggested shale gas as being worse for planet-warming emissions than coal - a comprehensive study will take time and money. The panel is keen to see the shale gas companies stump up a big part of both, but it could be more than a year before anything conclusive comes of such studies.

The panel also seeks to play down the 'flaming tap-water' episodes, which shocked many in the documentary film 'Gasland'. 'The presence of methane in wells surrounding a shale gas production site is not ipso facto evidence of methane leakage from the fractured producing,' they say. The recent scientific study pointing to exactly such an origin for methane in tap-water proves not so easy to dismiss. However, more studies are needed 'to confirm the validity of this study' say the report's authors.

Boom downgraded?

Meantime, as regulations are negotiated, and further studies conducted, shale gas will continue pumping at full throttle in many states. That is, if the shale gas bubble isn't burst first. As has been recently pointed out in a report in the Oil Drum, not all may be as booming in the shale gas fields, as operators imply. After looking at the rapid fall in production rates for many wells, with only a few years pumping, authors Arthur Berman and Lynn Pittinger believe that their analysis 'indicates that industry reserves are over-stated by at least 100 percent.'

By the time the regulators get round to completing their project of public reassurance, shale gas may be less of a boom, and more of a pop.

Top Image Credit: Marcellus Shale Natural Gas Drilling Worksite © Pixel Dude