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Shale Gas Fracking Getting Improved Reviews

Drilling for natural gas is fracturing many communities. But a recent study by the University of Buffalo, NY is concluding that most major environmental events tied to “fracking” can be nearly mitigated by company action.

It all centers on shale gas and the chemicals used to ply loose the commodity that is embedded in rocks and deep underground. While the industry says that such drilling methods are safe and that they present no danger to the public, environmentalist and community activists counter that the process is destroying their drinking water. Just how this issue is resolved will have huge implications on the country’s energy picture -- one estimated to see shale gas comprise 46 percent of all natural gas production by 2035.

“This study demonstrates that the odds of non-major environmental events and the much smaller odds of major environmental events are being reduced even further by enhanced regulation and improved industry practice,” says the Buffalo study, which is peer-reviewed and which includes researchers from the University of Wyoming and Penn State University.

Simply, the the report’s authors looked at about 3,000 violations from 4,000 natural gas wells processed by Pennsylvania’s regulators in a three year time period ending in August 2011. About 62 percent of those violations were administrative while 38 percent were environmental issues.

About 25 of those were classified as major ecological events, meaning there was serious contamination of local water supplies or major land spills. In all but six cases, the resulting environmental impacts have been addressed, say the authors. Lead author, Tim Considine who teaches economics at the University of Wyoming, says that the state regulatory construct is working and that the number incidents is declining each year.

Importantly, the federal government is saying that it, too, has a role in the oversight  of the shale gas industry. Among the proposals outstanding are ones to mandate drillers to divulge the chemicals they are using to frack as well as another to force them to capture -- and potentially sell -- their methane releases, which are considered the most potent of all greenhouse gases. All told, 12 states have rules on their books that require shale gas producers to report the chemicals they are using to frack; 206 companies are complying.

Best Practices

Nowhere is that process more contentious than in the Marcellus Shale. As much as 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas is estimated in the area, which stretches from New York and Pennsylvania and into Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and Ohio.

New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo, for instance, signed an executive order about a year-and-a-half ago banning fracking until that state completes its own investigation into those methods. The state is now in the process of lifting that moratorium and some expect drilling to proceed in 2013. Pennsylvania, meanwhile, has been at the center of acrimony over fracking, prompting major litigation there as well as regulatory investigations.

“Gas drilling in Pennsylvania has skyrocketed in recent years,” says Earth Justice. “And along with the gas rush have come disastrous industrial accidents and poisoned drinking water -- earning the state a reputation in the region for gas development gone wrong.”

But a high-powered cast of energy experts recently advised the U.S. Department of Energy that with more transparency, producers might better connect with the communities in which they are located. It is also saying that the industry must keep with “best practices” to always improve.

The American Petroleum Institute is emphasizing its safety record, noting that hundreds of thousands of wells have been drilled using hydraulic fracturing and that there are few accidents -- claims that are generally backed up by two additional studies from the University of Texas and Stanford University. The institute is also citing a recent MIT study that shows that the natural gas can supply all of this country’s resources for 100 years from shale gas.

“When we go out there and do a site, we cordoned off the whole area,” says Scott Rotruck, vice president of Chesapeake Energy. “Nothing gets out.” The process is taking place a mile-and-a-half below the earth’s surface, he adds, noting that current methods typically capture 20 percent of the available shale-gas. “So, the opportunity for innovation is limitless,” if only they are allowed to drill.

The community concerns are valid and the pressures they apply are working to improve industry standards. But the choice, for now, is to find better and safer ways to explore -- not to ban drilling for shale gas.

EnergyBiz Insider is the Winner of the 2011 Online Column category awarded by Media Industry News, MIN. Ken Silverstein has also been named one of the Top Economics Journalists by Wall Street Economists.

Twitter: @Ken_Silverstein


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