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New York’s Decision To Take Time For A Public Health Review Of Hydraulic Fracturing Is A Wise Move

Last week’s announcement that New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NY DEC) has asked New York State Department of Health (NY DOH) to undertake a review of the work NY DEC has done to date on regulating high volume hydraulic fracturing is welcome news.  Citizens across New York have raised legitimate questions about whether NY DEC is doing all that it can do to develop regulations that protect public health.  Review by a qualified panel of public health experts, under the auspices of NY DOH, is a necessary step to answer these legitimate concerns.  Getting the rules right in New York is critically important, so we believe that taking the time for a public health review is a wise move.

Of course, it is critically important that this review be done well.  The experts convened by NY DOH should be qualified, independent public health professionals.  The scope of their review should be broad and the work that they do should be thorough.  Science, not politics, should guide their work.  Above all, NY DEC should stand ready to act on any recommendations that come from this review.  EDF looks at this an opportunity to make NY DEC’s good work to date better, and we hope NY DEC sees it that way too.

EDF believes that New York’s regulatory regime should include the development of a public health baseline across the communities where shale gas development would be likely to occur, coupled with a rigorous, on-going effort by NY DOH to track key public health metrics against this baseline over time.  We believe this step is necessary to assure that regulations are working to protect public health, and provide the data necessary to fix them if they are not. 

No community should have to sacrifice public health or the quality of their environment for the sake of energy production.  Nor should artificial deadlines cut short efforts to get the regulations right.  New York Department of Environmental Conservation deserves praise for taking this necessary step.

Posted in Natural Gas, New York / Tagged | Read 1 Response

Why EDF Is Working On Natural Gas

Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) is often called upon by those opposed to natural gas development to support a ban or moratorium on drilling.  They argue that fighting for tough regulations, as EDF is doing, helps ensure that natural gas development will take place.  Some of our friends in the environmental community have questioned why we are working on natural gas at all.  They suggest that we should simply oppose natural gas development, and focus solely on championing energy efficiency and renewables.  We understand these concerns, and respect the people who share them.  And for that reason, we want to be as clear as we can be as to why EDF is so deeply involved in championing strong regulation of natural gas.

Our view on natural gas is shaped by three basic facts.  First, hydraulic fracturing is already a common practice in the oil and gas industry.  Over 90 percent of new onshore oil and gas development taking place in the United States today involves some form of hydraulic fracturing, and shale gas accounts for a rapidly increasing percentage of total natural gas production—from 16% in 2009 to more than 30% today.  In short, hydraulic fracturing is not going away any time soon.

Second, this fight is about much more than the role that natural gas may play in the future of electricity supply in the United States.  Natural gas is currently playing an important role in driving out old coal plants, and we are glad to see these coal plants go.  On balance, we think substituting natural gas for coal can provide net environmental value, including a lower greenhouse gas footprint.  We are involved in an ambitious study to measure methane leakage across the value chain, and we’re advocating for leak reduction in order to maximize natural gas’ potential carbon benefit.  We share the community’s concern that we not lose sight of the importance of energy efficiency and renewables, and are working hard to see that these options become preferred alternatives to natural gas over time. 

But even if we were able to eliminate demand for natural gas-fired electricity, our economy would still depend heavily on this resource.  Roughly two-thirds of natural gas produced in the U.S. is used as a feedstock for chemicals, pharmaceuticals and fertilizer, and for direct heating and cooling.  Natural gas is entrenched in our economy, and championing renewables and energy efficiency alone is not enough to address the environmental impacts associated with producing it.

Third, current natural gas production practices impose unacceptable impacts on air, water, landscapes and communities.  These impacts include exposure to toxic chemicals and potential groundwater contamination (due to faulty well construction or unsafe disposal of drilling wastewater), harmful local and regional air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions from unnecessary fugitive methane emissions and negative effects on communities and ecosystems. Whatever economic and environmental benefits natural gas may provide should never take precedence over or compromise the public’s right to clean water and clean air. Read More »

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Natural Gas – A Briefing Paper For Candidates

To download a copy of this briefing paper, please click here.

Hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, processes used to extract natural gas from underground shale formations, have unlocked vast new domestic reserves — an unexpected abundance that has overturned many of America’s assumptions about energy. Every major-party candidate for public office in 2012, Republican or Democrat, must understand this new energy reality. And though each candidate’s position on natural gas development is likely to begin with a recognition of shale gas’s economic and energy security benefits, mastery of the issue requires a deeper level of understanding.  Shale gas also brings with it a set of serious risks to public health and the environment — including impacts to water, air, land, local communities and the earth’s climate. At the local level in areas where shale gas production is intense, legitimate concerns over health and environmental impacts are shared by Republican, Democratic, and independent voters alike. No candidate’s position on natural gas can be considered complete unless it addresses these impacts.

In 2001, shale gas accounted for just 2% of America’s natural gas supply.  Today, it accounts for more than 30% — while more than 90% of all new oil and gas wells being drilled in the U.S. make use of hydraulic fracturing. As unconventional natural gas production spreads into populous regions that are not accustomed to intensive industrial activity, its impacts have made it the object of intense local opposition, as manifested in the July 28th “Stop the Frack Attack” rally in Washington D.C and others like it in state capitals around the country. The environmental and public health concerns of local communities must be addressed if natural gas companies are to maintain their social license to operate.

Economic Benefits

While a majority of Americans remain unfamiliar with hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” according to a recent University of Texas poll, many will certainly applaud the economic benefits of low-cost natural gas. The natural gas revolution is driving: 

  • Job creation across the value chain, with rising demand for technical and professional services, for steel, pipelines and storage facilities, and for all the ancillary goods and services that arise in support of a rapidly growing industry. 
  • An unexpected expansion in the American chemical industry, with Dow and DuPont now building new plants close to shale formations. “If you had told me 10 years ago I’d be standing up on this podium making this announcement [about Dow’s $4 billion investment in four new Texas chemical plants], I would not have believed you,” Dow CEO Andrew Liveris said in April. “The cost of energy, the cost of feedstocks … was pricing the United States out of the market,” he said. But the shale “miracle” changed that. 
  • A revival in U.S steelmaking and other manufacturing industries. Nucor, which uses natural gas to make steel, is building a $750-million facility in Louisiana, just eight years after shutting down a similar plant in the same state. 
  • A new sense of the potential for U.S. energy independence and energy security.

Environmental Benefits

Increased development of shale gas could yield substantial environmental and public health benefits while helping the U.S. energy infrastructure become cleaner and less carbon-intensive. This highly desirable outcome will only be achieved, however, if the resource is developed responsibly. The potential exists because natural gas: 

  • Produces only about half the carbon dioxide of coal when burned.
  • Produces about a third as much of the smog-forming nitrogen oxides that come from burning coal.
  • Produces almost none of the mercury and sulfur dioxides that come from burning coal or oil.  

For this reason, fueling power plants with natural gas instead of coal can dramatically cut conventional air pollution, can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector and could help turn the tide against mountaintop removal mining and other environmentally disastrous industry practices. And because natural gas-fired power plants can cycle up quickly, they can be a nimble enabler of intermittent renewable energy sources in combination with demand response and emerging large-scale energy storage technologies.

Critically, if U.S. industry and regulators are successful in measuring and reducing methane pollution, which undermines natural gas’ role as a lower carbon alternative to coal and oil, the shale gas revolution can also bring a reduction in short-term radiative forcing — the driver of global climate change — over the next several decades. Leak reduction will determine how much of a role natural gas can play in a clean, low carbon future.

In short, natural gas could be a win-win  benefiting both the economy and the environment — if we do it the right way. The right way means putting tough rules and mandatory environmental safeguards in place that protect communities and reduce methane pollution. There is no question that domestic unconventional gas supplies are leading to coal-fired power plants being retired.  The public recognizes this benefit, but the jury is still out on whether shale resources can be produced responsibly. It’s no simple task to strike a balance between public safety and the development of this crucial energy resource, but it is essential that we do so.  Americans deserve assurance that the economic, environmental and energy security benefits of shale gas development will be realized without sacrificing their health, safety, or the protection of the environment.

Clearly there are environmentally sensitive areas that should be off limits to natural gas development. And just as clearly there are some areas where intensive development will occur. Environmental Defense Fund is working with partners from academia, civil society, and industry to identify and minimize the impacts from the full range of gas development activities. Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing attract significant press attention, but the issues of gas production are much broader than that.

Specific Areas of Concern

EDF sees five areas in which strong rulemaking is necessary: 

  • Mandating greater transparency in industry operationsHaving good data is a prerequisite to understanding and mitigating risks, and it’s the first step toward winning back a badly damaged public trust.  Regulators should require, and companies should embrace, disclosure policies that mandate reporting of not only the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, but also chemicals used in drilling and operating wells – as Ohio Governor John Kasich has advocated.  Transparency should also be brought to other aspects of industry operations, such as detailed reporting of air emissions, chemical characterization of waste streams and tracking and reporting of water use and waste disposition.  Company compliance histories should also be catalogued and reported, so companies with good records can get the credit they deserve and bad actors can be identified and pushed to improve performance. 
  • Modernizing rules for well construction and operation. Poor well construction and operation can lead to groundwater contamination and to blowouts that can endanger lives and foul the surface environment. In response, EDF is working with regulators and key stakeholders to strengthen rules for proper construction and operation of hydraulically fractured wells. While stronger regulatory oversight of well construction is needed, no one should try to suggest that hydraulic fracturing itself is risk free.  Both aspects of well development need strong oversight.
  • Strengthening regulations for waste and water management.  Poor handling, storage and disposal of production fluids and other wastes is a major issue; chemical spillage is the leading cause of groundwater contamination from gas development activities. In response, EDF is pressing for measures to reduce spills, improve the use and handling of chemicals, and assure proper disposal (or recycling) of produced water.  As mentioned above, a key missing ingredient here is better data on the chemical composition of waste streams.  To be confident that handling, treatment and disposal practices are sufficient, authorities must know what substances are being handled. Finally, headline-grabbing reports of earthquakes connected to shale gas development have been linked to the waste disposal method known as deep well injection, not to hydraulic fracturing itself. This issue points to the need for improved seismic analysis prior to permitting of deep injection wells.  
  • Improving regulations to protect local and regional air quality. Air emissions resulting from the production, storage, processing, and transportation of natural gas can threaten public health. Leaks and routine venting during the extraction, processing and transportation of natural gas result in emissions of greenhouse gases and, depending on the local composition of unprocessed gas, other pollutants that contribute to locally- and regionally-elevated air pollution.  In 2009, an SMU study estimated that the combined amounts of volatile organic compounds (VOC) and nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions from oil and natural gas production in the Barnett Shale of North Texas were comparable to amounts of those emissions from the roughly 4 million cars and trucks in the adjoining Dallas Fort-Worth metro area. Fortunately, widely available and cost-effective remedies exist: repairing worn equipment, using “green” well completion techniques and eliminating venting are just a few. In the past five years, for example, Southwestern Energy says it has cut the cost of capturing stray emissions from $20,000 a well to close to zero. The company is capturing an average of 16 million cubic feet of gas that would otherwise have been released or flared. Southwestern also uses special pop-off valves to make sure natural gas is not released into the air from well casings. If pressure causes a valve to open, the gas is captured in a closed loop that returns it to the system, saving the resource. These systems cost just $600 to $1200 a piece. 
  • Developing innovative strategies to reduce community impacts. The cumulative impact of infrastructure development, traffic, noise, lights, and the like can overwhelm communities and intrude on sensitive ecosystems and habitats; none of this is easily addressed through conventional regulatory approaches. Instead, EDF recommends that states and local governments bring together stakeholders for scientifically based, bottom-up planning processes designed to address unique local needs. Likewise, the right of local communities to regulate the location of gas development through local zoning ordinances must be preserved.  Gas operations shouldn’t receive special carve-outs from traditional local powers that other industrial activities must comply with. 

President Obama has voiced his commitment to domestic energy production through safe and responsible natural gas development, declaring that “America will develop this resource without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk.” EDF would like to see Governor Romney and other candidates across the land call for the same careful balance. Far from being an example of regulation that chokes economic growth, strong oversight of natural gas development is necessary to ensure the sector’s continued growth, by avoiding the public backlash that could slow or even derail natural gas development.  Read More »

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Root Causes Of Water Pollution From Oil And Gas Operations

I received a flurry of emails this morning congratulating me on comments I made that appeared in a Wall Street Journal article titled, “Faulty Wells, Not Fracking, Blamed for Water Pollution.”

It is a good article. It suggests that even if artificial channels created by hydraulic fracturing have not yet been shown to have caused drinking water pollution, action is required to correct pollution problems caused by other aspects of natural gas operations.

I would add three additional points to the information covered in the article: 

  1. While faulty well construction is a big problem, surface spills have caused an even higher number of underground water pollution cases attributable to oil and gas development. A recent study commissioned by the Ground Water Protection Council (GWPC) determined that roughly 70% of nearly 400 cases of ground water pollution caused by the oil and gas industry over two decades in Texas and Ohio stemmed from mistakes made at the surface rather than from downhole problems.
  2. Why is it important that approximately one in 10 cement jobs requires remediation before the well is completed? This statistic doesn’t imply that one in every 10 wells is a pollution hazard.  Instead, the high number of cement jobs that need to be repaired in order to keep wells from becoming pollution hazards illustrates that without careful oversight of cementing the frequency of problem wells could increase dramatically. During the years in which GWPC identified some 400 ground water pollution cases in Texas and Ohio, nearly 221,000 wells were drilled in those states. Fortunately, the cement jobs didn’t fail on 10 percent of those wells! But 35 of the 400 pollution cases were due to well construction problems – cement job failures were involved in many but not all of those 35 instances.
  3. Although stronger regulatory oversight of well construction is needed, stronger oversight of hydraulic fracturing is also needed. No one should try to suggest that hydraulic fracturing is risk free. It is vital that regulators begin to more closely assess hydraulic fracturing plans and operations – especially in relatively shallow geologic contexts – to be sure that fractures will intersect neither drinking water nor transmissive faults or wellbores that in turn intersect drinking water.

To learn about aspects of oil and gas operations that need close regulatory oversight, see my blog, “If The Problem Isn’t Hydraulic Fracturing, What Is?

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Mixed Bag Out Of Pennsylvania On Hydraulic Fracturing Chemical Disclosure

Last night the Pennsylvania (PA) General Assembly passed legislation on fracturing fluid chemical disclosure that, on the whole, isn’t half bad – particularly considering where they started.  Unfortunately, the bill contains a major flaw that prevents us from being able to hold it up as a model for other states to follow.  Still, there’s quite a bit to be liked.  More on that below.

I should also point out that the disclosure legislation was part of a much larger bill that addresses a broad range of issue related to shale gas development in PA.  The overall bill has been the target of quite a bit of criticism from local environmental groups – particularly for eliminating much of the discretion of local jurisdictions to manage and plan for oil and gas activities within their borders.  We didn’t work on those provisions, so I’ll leave it to those who did to offer up their assessments and, for now, just give a run-down on the disclosure piece.

As originally drafted, the disclosure provisions in this bill were, quite frankly, useless.  All they would have done is codify current rules at the PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).  Under those rules, companies only reveal the chemicals that have to get reported on material safety data sheets – which leaves out maybe half the chemicals used in fracturing fluids.  And there was no requirement for posting disclosures on an easily accessible website for the public to see.  That kind of regime comes nowhere close to what EDF calls “disclosure,” and it’s way behind the times in terms of where the national conversation is today.  So, EDF teamed up with the Pennsylvania Environmental Council to improve the draft.

The Good

The first thing to understand is that PA will require two kinds of reporting.  Operators will disclose chemical information on the well completion reports they turn in to the DEP after drilling, fracturing and beginning production on a well.  And then, certain operators will be required to also post their disclosures on Frac Focus, the disclosure website run by the Ground Water Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission.

As for the well completion reporting requirements, they’re quite good.  Operators will have to disclose all the chemicals they use, along with chemical concentrations.  They’ll also disclose the trade-name additives they use and the purposes they serve.  Taking it a step further than what other states have done, PA will also require operators to report their water sources and how much recycled wastewater they use in hydraulic fracturing treatments – an important step forward in disclosure requirements.

As with every other state disclosure rule, PA will allow operators to claim trade secret protections to keep certain chemical identities confidential.  These claims will be governed by PA’s “Right to Know” law, which means PA will be on the leading edge of how states are currently dealing with trade secrets in fracturing chemical disclosure rules.  Companies will be required to actually submit their trade secret information to the DEP (instead of completely withholding it, as some states allow).  Citizens will have broad standing to challenge trade secret claims at the PA Office of Open Records; and when there are challenges, the burden will be on the DEP and operators to prove why a trade secret claim is legitimate.  We’re aware that some in industry repeatedly tried to gut the Right to Know provisions in the bill, and credit is due to Governor Corbett’s office for fending off those attacks.

As we’ve mentioned before, we support the recommendation of the DOE Secretary of Energy Advisory Board that “the barrier to shield chemicals based on trade secrets should be set very high.”

Finally, the PA bill gives added emphasis to the need for making information available in formats that are useful and user friendly.  Mirroring the language that was pioneered in the Colorado rule, PA is now the second state to call for improving the search functions on Frac Focus.

The Bad (and Ugly)

Unfortunately, the bill took a major wrong turn on one key point.  While operators of all oil and gas wells will be required to disclose chemical information on their well completion reports, only operators of “unconventional” wells will be required to post their disclosures on Frac Focus.  The bill defines unconventional wells as those that are drilled and fractured below the Elk Sandstone formation in PA.  We’re not sure yet how many wells this will leave out, but it’s a fair guess it will be a lot.  So, we’re really only getting partial public disclosure here.

That’s a shame.  Public concern about fracturing chemicals doesn’t have anything to do with geologic stratigraphy.  Spills, bad casing and cementing jobs, loss of well control and failures in waste containment facilities can happen regardless of the depth of your target formation.  The potential pathways for contamination are there for all wells (and arguably, they’re even higher for shallower wells).  So, there’s no rational reason why all wells shouldn’t be required to post their disclosures on Frac Focus.

PA is the only state that’s made this bizarre differentiation between conventional and unconventional wells.  We’ll be looking to fix that problem in the future.  And in the meantime, we’ll be working overtime to make sure no other state repeats this mistake.

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Improving New York’s Proposed Hydraulic Fracturing Regulations

Around the country, states are taking a serious look at their regulations to manage shale gas development.  New York has the potential to be a leader among these states. Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) believes that strong regulations and aggressive enforcement is critical to protecting public health and the environment from high-volume hydraulic fracturing and other hydrocarbon extraction activities in New York State. To that end, we have submitted detailed comments on the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC)’s proposed rules and permitting conditions for hydraulic fracturing. The NYSDEC can put New York at the forefront of safe and clean shale gas development by implementing our suggestions in several critical areas:

1)      Chemical Disclosure: Full public disclosure is rapidly becoming the industry norm across the country, but the proposed NYSDEC disclosure rules for chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process only covers chemicals with Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), thus failing to capture perhaps half or more of the chemicals used. This is especially problematic because MSDS only explore hazards in occupational settings and do not consider implications for public health or the environment. Further, the proposed rule only requires disclosure of additive products proposed to be used in hydraulic fracturing, as opposed to the chemicals actually used during the hydraulic fracturing process. EDF feels strongly that operators should disclose all hydraulic fracturing chemicals used on a well-by-well basis, posted on a searchable, publically accessible website.

2)      Well Construction: Properly constructed, tested and maintained wells are critical to protecting New York’s precious groundwater and surface water aquifers from contamination by drilling fluid, wastewater and natural gas seepage. The proposed well construction regulations and permitting conditions need improvement to meet industry best practice standards. Furthermore, some of the proposed rules represent potential safety hazards for well pad workers. A model regulatory framework EDF, and others, are developing could be used to greatly improve NYDEC’s proposed well construction regulations.  

3)      GHG Emissions/Methane Leakage: EDF is a leading advocate of strict standards on limiting methane emissions from natural gas production. Methane is a pernicious greenhouse gas, many more times more powerful than carbon dioxide.  To reduce the peak warming and improve air quality, it is critical to minimize the amount of methane vented or flared at the production site or leaked during storage and transmission. We strongly urge the NYSDEC to impose specific Green Completion and other emission-reducing requirements on operators, and to formulate hard emissions targets that provide incentives for operators to reduce methane leakage even further.

4)      Wastewater: Hydraulic fracturing produces huge volumes of potentially toxic and radioactive wastewater. New York recognizes this problem but does not seriously address the lack of capacity for processing or safely storing hydraulic fracturing waste materials within the state. Current technology does not allow for safe, cost-effective purification of hydraulic fracturing wastewater at treatment centers for re-introduction into the water system, and should be banned. Insofar as it appears that the final disposition of the bulk of the wastewater produced in New York will be trucked out of state to deep injection wells, the proposed regulations and permitting conditions must grapple with this expensive and perhaps unsustainable practice. Finally, since wastewater recycling will likely be the dominant treatment option undertaken by shale gas operators in New York, this practice needs to be more thoughtfully and transparently regulated.

5)      Phase-in: Even with the best rules on the books, it will take time to hire and train the necessary staff to implement and enforce the rules properly.  New York is essentially building a regulatory program from scratch.  EDF believes the NYSDEC should learn how to walk before it can run.  Our suggestion is that New York phase in the regulatory program region by region.  In this way, the state can be sure that the pace of drilling activity will not outpace its ability to adequately administer the regulations.  So, too, this phase-in approach will allow the state to acquire valuable experience in step-wise fashion. The key is not doing it quickly, but doing it correctly.

These and other adjustments to the proposed rules and permitting conditions are necessary to protect public health and the environment in New York. Shale gas extraction can be made safe through strong regulations and aggressive enforcement to protect communities. EDF is committed to working with the NYSDEC on these issues to produce the most responsible hydraulic fracturing regulatory framework in the nation.

EDF’s full comments on New York’s hydraulic fracturing regulations are available here.

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