The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

Parsing the Fracking Panel's Report

Mark Green

Mark Green
Posted August 12, 2011

The Energy Department's natural gas/hydraulic fracturing subcommittee is out with its draft report. Here's the takeaway line from the document's executive summary:

"The Subcommittee shares the prevailing view that the risk of fracturing fluid leakage into drinking water sources through fractures made in deep shale reservoirs is remote."

Certainly, the panel had lots to say about standards and practices, protecting the air, surface wastewater containment, transparency and safety - all important - but the sense here is that Americans' chief concern is whether "fracking" threatens their drinking water. Indeed, that's the main claim of people who oppose natural gas as a breakthrough energy source, as well as the technique that has revolutionized its development.

The subcommittee's conclusion: not really. In fact, it's significant the panel said it shares the "prevailing view," which is to say that it agrees with others who've looked at hydraulic fracturing and have concluded the risk to drinking water is, well, remote.

That said, a rational, fact-based discussion should follow - one that acknowledges natural gas as an abundant, affordable, clean-burning energy source, with dynamic ability to create jobs and economic growth.

Part of that is moving beyond a false premise - repeated in public comments by subcommittee Chairman John Deutch - that the choice on natural gas/hydraulic fracturing is between stopping natural gas development and development that ignores environmental effects. To the contrary, the panel's findings reflect significant industry efforts to responsibly manage its activities. No, the actual divide on this issue is between responsible gas development and stopping responsible development altogether.

You can read general coverage of the panel's recommendations here and here. The subcommittee's main concern is developing the means to measure compliance with operating and environmental standards and transparency in practices, such as the composition of fracking fluids:

"Shale gas has "brought lower prices, domestic jobs, and the prospect of enhanced national security due to the potential of substantial production growth. ... The Subcommittee stresses the importance of a process of continuous improvement in the various aspects of shale gas production that relies on best practices and is tied to measurement and disclosure. While many companies are following such a process, much-broader and more extensive adoption is warranted."

Yet, API and its members already have a set of best practices, which the Deutch panel seems to want to duplicate. At the same time, the subcommittee assigns little import to the fact the FracFocus online registry of chemicals used in fracking fluids has been operational since April. In addition, API and its members support STRONGER, a non-profit organization that helps states with their oil and natural gas regulatory structures. API President and CEO Jack Gerard:

"The committee's recommendations are deficient in large part because the committee failed to adequately acknowledge existing programs and rules. ... The industry is committed to appropriate environmental protections and industry best practices, but is concerned that the subcommittee's recommendations could end up frustrating the many benefits that will come from further development of America's vast supply of natural gas, including the creation of hundreds of thousands of new jobs and increasing our nation's energy security. We urge the committee to revise its recommendations to better reflect the facts on hydraulic fracturing, the extensive regulations under which the industry operates, and the industry's new best practices."

Of course, best practices aren't set in stone. API's are reviewed at least every five years. At the same time, a robust regulatory system is in place, with states in the best position to regulate. Industry is a willing partner. "We are committed to working with regulators to improve the system to make sure we are effectively protecting the environment and addressing local concerns," said Erik Milito, API's upstream director.


Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.