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SEAB-issued recommendations present new challenges to shale gas industry

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The Secretary of Energy Advisory Board Subcommittee (SEAB) released its final report on Shale Gas Production, which calls on state, federal, and industry stakeholders to protect the environment while developing shale gas resources. The SEAB was charged by the U.S. Department of Energy and President Obama with drafting a report on immediate steps that can be taken to improve safety and environmental concerns during all stages of shale gas development. The role of the SEAB is to act as an advisor to the Department of Energy, in order to ensure the shale gas resources in the United States are developed with considerations to the environment and human health.

SEAB’s call to action: A federal, state and partnership approach

The SEAB sets forth twenty recommendations, which are directed at state and local agencies, industry, and private landholders in order to address the potential concerns related to shale gas production. The SEAB stated that implementing the recommendations will require “a great deal of effort, and regulators, public officials, and companies need to decide how to allocate scarce human and financial resources to each recommendation.” The twenty recommendations are classified into three categories: (1) recommendations ready for implementation by federal agencies; (2) recommendations ready for implementation by states; (3) recommendations that require new partnerships and mechanisms for success.

The recommendations for implementation by federal agencies are recommendations the SEAB stated should be implemented immediately.

These recommendations include:

  • improving public information about shale gas operations;
  • improving communication among federal and state regulators and providing federal funding for peer review by non-profit organizations such as the State Review of Oil and Natural Gas Environmental Regulations (STRONGER) and the Ground Water Protection Council;
  • measures to be taken to reduce emissions of air pollutants, ozone precursors, and methane as quickly as practicable;
  • enlisting a subset of producers in different basins to design and field a system to collect air emissions data
  • launch a federal interagency planning effort to acquire data and analyze the greenhouse gas footprint of natural gas use;
  • encouraging shale gas production companies and regulators to expand efforts to reduce air emissions using proven technologies and practices;
  • launch additional field studies on possible methane migration from shale gas wells to water reservoirs;
  • disclose hydraulic fracturing fluid composition;
  • eliminate diesel use in fracturing fields;
  • define limits for research and development and budget levels for the Department of Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Geological Survey.

The SEAB suggested states address four recommendations, all targeted at water quality issues at shale gas sites. Two recommendations, to measure and publicly report the composition of water stocks and flow throughout fracturing and cleanup and to manifest all transfers of water among different locations, rely heavily on the ongoing EPA study which is currently studying the impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources. The SEAB also suggests state agencies adopt best practices in well development and construction, especially for casing, cementing, and pressure management, as well as adopt requirements for background water quality measurements.

The biggest challenge

The recommendations that require new partnerships or mechanisms are considered to be the most challenging of all of the reports suggestions, primarily because the recommendations involve state and local funding, studies, and cost. These recommendations include the protection of water through a systems or lifecycle approach towards water management; modernizing rules and enforcement practices to ensure protection of drinking water and surface water; managing short term and cumulative impacts on communities, land use, wildlife, and ecologies; and establishing leadership initiatives, established by industry, that involve public interest groups, state and local regulatory agencies, and local colleges.

The SEAB report essentially calls upon federal agencies, state agencies, and industry to protect the environment during a time where the growth of shale gas production is expected to increase throughout the United States. If the recommendations set forth in the report are followed, this will greatly increase the need for regulation at both the state and federal level, and would require industry to participate in studies and provide meaningful feedback to develop programs that will eliminate environmental concerns.

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