Natural gas plays an important role in our nation’s economy, and has the potential to help reduce greenhouse gas pollution, bolster energy security, and reinvigorate domestic manufacturing. Unfortunately, these potential benefits are jeopardized by inconsistent and often poor natural gas production practices, leading to real threats to public health and the environment, that understandably engender community opposition to natural gas production.
To say the natural gas industry has a credibility problem is an understatement. If the recent spate of critical articles in the New York Times escaped your attention, than perhaps you saw this recent bit on the Colbert Report, which demonstrates, among other things, that the general public has little understanding for the complex issues surrounding shale gas development, and the industry has been doing little to engage them in a serious way. The Colbert bit is funny, but the need to get the shale gas issue right is no joke.
In March, President Obama directed Energy Secretary Steven Chu to appoint a group of energy and environmental experts to study the issue. EDF President (and my boss) Fred Krupp was appointed to the panel. During 90 days of intensive investigation and deliberation, the panel, chaired by MIT professor John Deutch, held a series of public hearings. They heard from industry officials, environmental leaders, federal and state regulators, scientists and others. They visited well sites to see drilling and production first hand. They held a public meeting in southern Pennsylvania to hear directly from people who are living with intensive shale gas development – both the good and the bad. Supporters and opponents packed the auditorium and told stories about how the shale gas boom had affected them. For some, it had provided an economic lifeline. For others, it had made life a nightmare.
And today, after much study and deliberation, the committee has issued a report with some very specific recommendations which, if implemented, could materially reduce the risks to public health and environment from shale gas development and begin to build public trust.
The report calls for increased oversight: robust enforcement practices and modernized rules to safeguard communities and improve communication between state and federal regulators. The report makes it clear that "effective and capable regulation is essential to protect the public interest. The challenges of protecting human health and the environment in light of the anticipated rapid expansion of shale gas production require the joint efforts of federal and state regulators. This means that resources dedicated to oversight of the industry must be sufficient to do the job and there is adequate regulatory staff at the state and federal level with the technical expertise to issue, inspect and enforce regulations."
The report also makes clear that regulation alone will not be enough. It calls for the full public disclosure of all chemicals used in the process of hydraulic fracturing. It calls for gathering the data necessary to determine whether, and to what degree natural gas provides greenhouse gas benefits when substituted for coal or oil in energy production or transportation. It recommends that the industry get its own house in order by organizing itself to identify and share best practices across the industry with a relentless focus on continuous improvement in reducing air and water pollution and other environmental harms.
These recommendations won’t solve all problems, and there is much work to be done simply to make these recommendations a reality, but today’s report is an important step in getting beyond the comedy bits and headlines to focus on those measures that can make a material difference in improving public health and the environment.