Shale gas extraction comes under EPA scrutiny

As lawmakers increasingly wake up to the benefits of the US’ onshore boom in natural gas – the cleanest burning of the fossil fuels – it is only natural environmentalists will find it easier to have their concerns on the subject heard, as well. Indeed, it seems they have made significant inroads.

The US Environmental Protection Agency said this week it was proceeding with a comprehensive examination of the safety of hydraulic fracturing – one of the key technologies that has enabled the boom. The study was requested by Congress last year. And the issue has been getting more attention since ExxonMobil announced it was buying XTO Energy to boost its presence in the onshore gas boom.

From the EPA:

Natural gas plays a key role in our nation’s clean energy future and the process known as hydraulic fracturing is one way of accessing that vital resource. There are concerns that hydraulic fracturing may impact ground water and surface water quality in ways that threaten human health and the environment.

The natural gas industry is putting up a brave front. In the words of Regina Hopper, president and chief executive of America’s Natural Gas Alliance:

The natural gas community looks forward to working with the EPA to reaffirm the safety of this longstanding practice. Hydraulic fracturing has been refined and improved over the past 60 years and has been used safely on more than 1 million US wells. With the extraordinary opportunity presented by our nation’s natural gas abundance comes the responsibility to be good stewards of the land. Our members take this responsibility seriously, and we look forward to sharing with the EPA the extensive work done at every step of the natural gas extraction process. We are confident that a scientific and data-driven examination will provide policymakers and the public with even greater reassurance of the safety of this practice.

But the reality is that the industry has much to lose from the raising of questions about the practice. Certainly there are both sides to every story, and the industry insists it is not contaminating the water supply. But, at a time when lawmakers are looking at ways to curb fossil fuel use for the greenhouse gasses they emit, the natural gas lobby might have more difficulties being heard. Despite being cleaner than oil or coal, natural gas is still an emitter of carbon dioxide. And, as a fossil fuel and a relatively fragmented industry, it has found it slow going getting support in Congress.

The process under scrutiny is that of fracturing the rock. It requires large quantities of water laced with chemicals, which critics fear could leak into groundwater and aquifers. Shale developments have been blamed for contaminating wells and the death of livestock exposed to potassium chloride in the water used to fracture the rock; this has led regulators to consider buffer zones around reservoirs and aquifers.

Indeed ExxonMobil seemed concerned enough about potential regulations of the process that it put an exit clause into its recent plan to acquire XTO Energy, allowing Exxon to walk away if hydraulic fracturing, the technology used in tapping unconventional natural gas, became uncommercial. Nonetheless, Exxon insisted at its recent analyst meeting in New York that it expected the deal to close in the second quarter.

It is difficult to know what Exxon is thinking. It is not one for giving out clues. But what is clear is that the EPA study is in its early stages, so any forthcoming regulation could be some time away – by which time the natural gas will have also had more time to make its case as a relatively clean alternative to coal, and a source of backup power to intermittent sources of renewable power.

Related links:

Is natural gas a real low-carbon option? (FT Energy Source)

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