Chair of DOE Shale Gas Panel Presents Summary of Recommendations

by Duane Nichols on August 19, 2011

Fracking Protest Rally
In January, Energy Secretary Steven Chu formed a subcommittee of his advisory board on natural gas. The subcommittee, which John Deutch chaired, presented recommendations this week intended to give the public, regulators and industry a measurable way to monitor progress in reducing current and potential environmental impacts of shale-gas production, not just from fracking.
In an opinion column in the Washington Post, Deutch says that the proposed approach relies on increased measurement, public disclosure, and a commitment to continuous improvement in the development and environmental management of shale gas. Validated data on such indicators as the composition of produced water, background water quality, methane leakage to the atmosphere and well completion will meet key needs: helping regulators set and enforce limits, leading industry to more efficient operations, and providing the public with information on systematic trends to compare with individual reports of environmental damage.
The work of the Panel with state and federal regulators, industry representatives and the public convinces Deutch that two approaches will not work. The first is the view that existing and planned regulation adequately protects the public interest, and that the adverse environmental impacts are minor and compare favorably to energy sources such as coal. The second view is that prescriptive regulation is the only way to protect the public interest from a company’s profit and cost-cutting motives that can result in environmental damage.
There must be a shift to a data-driven process. says Deutch,  that relies to a greater extent on performance-based standards, where a company certifies compliance and is assessed fines for violations at levels that vary with frequency and severity. For example, shale-gas well-cementing and completion regulations should not specify how a well should be completed but, rather, how a completed well should perform under specified tests.  The subcommittee recommends that industry establish a national technical organization to encourage the development and diffusion of best practices — recognized improvements to techniques and methods based on measurement and field experience.
John Deutch, an institute professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, chaired the energy secretary’s advisory board subcommittee on shale-gas production. He served as director of energy research and undersecretary of energy in the Carter administration.
Clearly, a national technical organization formed by the gas industry to develop and promote “best practices” would be a positive step.  However, calling on the industry to do its own regulation has not worked in the past; and, given the magnitude of the current problems and issues, will not work in the future.  Strong regulations at the national and state levels are already very much overdue.                Duane Nichols, August 19, 2011.

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