Frack panel: ‘Serious environmental consequences’ possible without action to reduce impacts

November 10, 2011 by Ken Ward Jr.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s special commission examining natural gas drilling has released a second report, warning today:

… If action is not taken to reduce the environmental impact accompanying the very considerable expansion of shale gas production expected across the country – perhaps as many as 100,000 wells over the next several decades – there is a real risk of serious environmental consequences and a loss of public confidence that could delay or stop this activity.

An initial report, issued in August, made clear that the potential impacts from booms like the Marcellus Shale play are not minor things:

Intensive shale gas development can potentially have serious impacts on public health, the environment and quality of life – even when individual operators conduct their activities in ways that meet and exceed regulatory requirements. The combination of impacts from multiple drilling and production operations, support infrastructure (pipelines, road networks, etc.) and related activities can overwhelm ecosystems and communities.

And today’s new report outlines some specific actions that the commission — made up mostly of experts with close ties to the gas industry — believes federal and state governments need to take, and that action so far has been far from adequate:

The Subcommittee is gratified by the actions that have been taken to date and are planned, by the administration, state governments, industry, and public interest groups to reduce the environmental impact of shale gas production. However, the progress to date is less than the Subcommittee hoped. The Subcommittee cautions that whether its approach is followed or not, some 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.

Meanwhile, Abrahm Lustgarten at ProPublica has a major new story out today, reporting:

As the country awaits results from a nationwide safety study on the natural gas drilling process of fracking, a separate government investigation into contamination in a place where residents have long complained that drilling fouled their water has turned up alarming levels of underground pollution.

A pair of environmental monitoring wells drilled deep into an aquifer in Pavillion, Wyo., contain high levels of cancer-causing compounds and at least one chemical commonly used in hydraulic fracturing, according to new water test results released yesterday by the Environmental Protection Agency.

And in Texas, preliminary results are in from a major University of Texas study of hydraulic fracturing, and as reported here, fracking itself is not the problem — but the size and scope of modern drilling operations seems to be raising serious issues:

Preliminary results of a University of Texas study on hydraulic fracturing indicate the process itself does not appear to contaminate contaminating drinking water, but that fracturing sites may have a higher incidence of surface problems that can occur with any type of drilling.

Prior reports, investigations and data gathered throughout the country on claims that the process often called fracking contaminated ground water so far don’t make the direct link, said Chip Groat, a UT geologist who is leading the study.

Rather, it appears that shale drilling results in more problems on the surface than drilling that doesn’t involve fracking, including spills of drilling and fracking fluids, leaks from wastewater pits and other rule violations, said Groat, who is unveiling the preliminary results of the study in Fort Worth on Wednesday.

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