Shale gas production in the US is threatened by public opposition that will grow unless the industry’s environmental impacts are controlled “as soon as possible”, an advisory committee appointed by the government has warned.
The seven-member panel was asked by Steven Chu, the energy secretary, to make recommendations for improving the safety and environmental performance of shale gas production. In its first report, published on Thursday, it proposed new requirements for environmental monitoring, disclosure and encouraging best practice, but did not call for any changes to the regulatory framework.
John Deutch, the former head of the Central Intelligence Agency who chairs the committee, said President Barack Obama had made it clear he wanted the industry to grow without harming the environment. The panel’s recommendations showed ways to make sure that happened.
The committee, made up of academics, consultants and the head of the Environmental Defense Fund, was attacked by critics of the industry before the report was published because several members are directors of energy companies.
“Our report is a compromise, and in that sense it will make nobody happy,” Mr Deutch said. “This report is the only balanced discussion that I’ve seen of the shale gas industry.”
Many industry executives say they accept the need for higher environmental standards, but the prospect of new requirements may raise concerns about increased costs that could deter some developments.
Advances in production techniques have made it possible to tap gas in shale rocks that had been uneconomic, opening up reserves estimated to be enough to meet 100 years worth of US demand at present rates.
However, opponents have become more vocal over using hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”: injecting water and chemicals into the shale at high pressures to crack the rock and let the gas flow out.
The committee argued that the risk of fracking fluids bleeding into water supplies through cracks in the rock is “remote”, although spilt fluids can cause contamination. Other problems include pollution caused by improperly disposing fracking fluids after use, and releases of natural gas and pollutants into the air.
The committee warned that these “serious environmental impacts …need to be prevented, reduced and, where possible, eliminated as soon as possible”. It added: “Absent effective control, public opposition will grow, thus putting continued production at risk.”
Proposals include requiring companies to report on sourcing, use and disposal of fracking water and chemicals, a programme for collecting air pollution data, and a new organisation to encourage best practice.
While urging “effective and capable” regulation, the committee said the question of whether federal authorities should play a greater role compared with state regulators was “not within the scope of [our] report”.
Stephen Holditch, another committee member of the committee who is a professor at Texas A&M University, said some companies and regulators were already meeting the requirements to collect and publish information. “It’s the cost of doing business, and it’s the right thing to do,’’ he said.
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