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Energy Dept. Panel Warns of Environmental Toll of Current Gas Drilling Practices

by Nicholas Kusnetz, ProPublica

A federal energy panel issued a blunt warning to shale gas drillers and their regulators yesterday, saying they need to step up efforts to protect public health and the environment or risk a backlash that stifles further development.

“Concerted and sustained action is needed to avoid excessive environmental impacts of shale gas production and the consequent risk of public opposition to its continuation and expansion,” said members of the Energy Department’s Shale Gas Subcommittee in a draft report released yesterday.A federal energy panel issued a blunt warning to shale gas drillers and their regulators yesterday, saying they need to step up efforts to protect public health and the environment or risk a backlash that stifles further development. (photo: Penn State)

The seven-member committee, appointed in January by Energy Secretary Steven Chu, provides a way for the Obama administration to weigh in on gas drilling, which is primarily overseen by state regulatory agencies.

In August, the panel issued a lengthy set of recommendations to state and federal agencies and the gas industry for making gas drilling safer.

Yesterday’s report – acknowledging that progress on the panel’s suggestions has been slow – sets out who needs to do what in order to turn recommendations into reality. The panel also stressed the importance of shale gas to the nation’s energy policy, noting that it already makes up 30 percent of domestic gas production.

The report calls on the EPA to revise a proposed rule on air emissions to include limits on methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and criticizes recent moves by the agency that have hindered efforts to get better data from the oil and gas industry, a crucial step toward improving controls.

The report also concludes that joint federal and state efforts to ensure water quality are “not working smoothly” and urges the EPA to move unilaterally to improve oversight as it carries out a study on potential effects of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water.

The panel’s recommendations are not binding, but Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said they carry significant weight.

“We need more experts acknowledging publicly that there are real risks and they can be addressed,” she said. NRDC and other environmental organizations sent a letter to President Obama last week, urging him to issue an executive order directing federal agencies to carry out the panel’s recommendations.

Drilling companies have in the past resisted some policy changes that the panel is recommending, such more stringent federal limits on emissions. Reid Porter, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, an industry group, would not comment on the specific recommendations, but said API members have begun to implement some of the panel's recommendations, including working with state agencies to strengthen best practices on well design and minimizing water use.

The Energy Department’s advisory board will hold a public meeting on the draft report on Monday before finalizing it.

 

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