By: Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublica

As environmental concerns threaten to derail natural gas drilling projects across the country, the energy industry has developed innovative ways to make it easier to exploit the nation’s reserves without polluting air and drinking water.

Energy companies have figured out how to drill wells with fewer toxic chemicals, enclose wastewater so it can’t contaminate streams and groundwater, and sharply curb emissions from everything from truck traffic to leaky gas well valves. Some of their techniques also make good business sense because they boost productivity and ultimately save the industry money – $10,000 per well in some cases.

Yet these environmental safeguards are used only intermittently in the 32 states where natural gas is drilled.  The energy industry is exempted from many federal environmental laws, so regulation of this growing industry is left almost entirely to the states, which often recommend, but seldom mandate the use of these techniques. In one Wyoming gas field, for instance, drillers have taken steps to curb emissions, while 100 miles away in the same state, they have not.

The debate over the safety of natural gas drilling has intensified in the past year, even as the nation increasingly turns to cleaner-burning natural gas as an alternative to oil and coal. In Congress, one group of politicians is writing a climate bill that would encourage the use of more natural gas, while another group is pushing a bill that would put a key part of the process under federal regulation and force the disclosure of chemicals used in the drilling process. Neither bill addresses the question of how to encourage energy companies to use existing techniques that lower the risks of environmental damage.

Interviews with state officials and industry executives in states across the country show the industry tends to use these environmental safeguards only when political, regulatory, cost or social pressures force it to do so.

When states have tried to toughen regulations aimed at protecting the environment or institutionalizing these practices, energy companies have fought hard to defend the status quo. They argue that current laws are sufficient, that mandating practices imposes specific solutions on regions where they may not work best, and that the cost of complying with additional laws and safeguards would bankrupt them.

“Sometimes environmental considerations aren’t the same as the public considerations, and many times the economic considerations don’t fit,” said David Burnett, an associate research scientist at Texas A&M University’s Global Petroleum Research Institute and a founder of Environmentally Friendly Drilling, a government and industry-funded program that identifies best practices and encourages their use. “There could be better management practices used. We have to find a balance.”

Michael Freeman, an attorney at the environmental group Earthjustice, says there is no escaping some damage from drilling. But if the best available precautions were routinely followed, environmental harm could be minimized and the industry may face less resistance from the public as it taps the vast new gas deposits that have been discovered in recent years.

“It would certainly address a lot of peoples’ concerns,” Freeman said. “But the government agencies that regulate the oil and gas industry need to be aggressive about making them clean up their act.”

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Published on December 14, 2009

{ 2 comments }

ProPublica.org December 24, 2009 at 7:08 am

From Mary Sweeney
December 14, 2009 4:27 pm EST
While developing so-called “green” fracking fluids may indeed be a help, many problems with shale gas drilling would still remain. For example, no matter what sort of fracking fluid is used, naturally occurring radioactive materials that are normally buried deep beneath the surface of the earth will still be brought to the surface as the fluid returns out of the wellbore.

Further, even if truck traffic is reduced, the huge number of gas wells, access roads, pipelines (for gas and water), and compressor stations required will leave the landscape forever scarred.

For those who are not living in a shale area, please understand that they are not talking about putting these wells just in the wide open spaces. In NY state there really are very few “wide open spaces.” NY state law has negated local communities’ ability to zone these gas wells out of residential areas. The setbacks from private wells, waterways, homes, and municipal water wells are very small. In order to get an appreciable amount of gas from the shale, they will need thousands and thousands of gas wells—enough to turn upstate NY and much of PA into a huge gas factory in which the residents will be treated like so much expendable collateral damage.

Many of us who have lived here for years and years, faithfully paying our mortgages and taxes, feel that we no longer have control of our own property. This is a huge land grab, and it’s not about energy independence, it’s about money. If this country were serious about energy independence, we would have a serious conservation plan in place and we would be seriously working on sustainable, clean energy sources like wind and solar. Instead, our homes and lives are being destroyed in order to produce more fossil fuel energy which will largely be used to run inefficient appliances and heat poorly insulated homes. No one—not even the most optimistic gas drilling advocate—says this gas will last forever. But we are going to spend a tremendous amount of money getting the gas out of the ground and cleaning up the resulting mess. And shale gas will never be cheap: the wells are expensive, the water disposal is expensive, and the wells deplete rapidly, so they will need a huge number of wells to recover an appreciable amount of gas. All of that money could be much better spent developing a clean, sustainable, 21st-century approach to energy production and use.

ProPublica.org December 24, 2009 at 7:06 am

From EnvtMemo
December 15, 2009 1:56 pm EST
I’ve commented at EnvironmentMemo on this article. While there’s a lot of good information in the article, there’s a lot of industry PR that needs challenging, as well. Diesel fuel was taken out of the mix because of severe problems it caused, and it was not exempted from regulation in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, so they basically had to stop using it. That they used it to begin with does not augur well.

They are spinning some things they would be doing anyway, in an attempt to avoid having to do what they really have to do: commit to using only benign compounds for fracking.

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