Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Finally, A Federal Fracking Foray...Phooey?

On May 5, 2011, U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu asked the Natural Gas Subcommittee of his Energy Advisory Board to make recommendations on improving the safety and environmental performance of natural gas hydraulic fracturing from shale formations.  Good.  But note it was not a directive of "Should this be done or not?' but one of "It's going to be done, now, how can we do it responsibly?"

This request is part of President Obama's "Blueprint for a Secure Energy Future" - crafting a comprehensive plan to reduce America's oil dependence while saving consumers money and making the US a world leader in clean energy. The Subcommittee's task is:

" to identify, within 90 days, any immediate steps that can be taken to improve the safety and environmental performance of fracking and to develop, within six months, consensus recommended advice to the agencies on practices for shale extraction to ensure the protection of public health and the environment." (Blueprint, page 13)

The Subcommittee met for the first time on May 18, 2011 and held 5 additional meetings on June 1-2, June 13, June 28, July 13 and October 31 - all discussing issues and gathering information on the good, bad and ugly of hydraulic fracturing operations.  They report that they have received "a tremendous amount of public input" since their first meeting, and have provided a website for the review of all these comments, but it's not a working link as of today when I visited.   I wonder how many of these comments asked that it not be done at all?

They also released the first draft of their obligatory 90-day report on August 11, 2011 and took public comments until August 17, 2011 - receiving 163 comments on this specific document.  Of the 163 comments, 16 were detailed responses, 10 provided by environemtal groups or persons and six by oil and gas interests.  Their own summary of these comments states:  "These comments include complaints about the limited time for reviewing the report and objections to the Subcommittee makeup. Numerous respondents oppose hydraulic fracturing, recommend additional regulation of natural gas operations, and oppose development of non-renewable energy sources."  And most of us are just now hearing of this entire effort. 

Anyway, the Subcommittee just released its second and final ninety-day report which is dated November 18, 2011, in which they review the progress that has been made in implementing the 20 recommendations in its initial report of August 18, 2011.  Nice, It sounds like the entire public process didn't add, delete or change a single recommendation they originally came up with.  Moreover, even though most opposed the practice altogether, it is clear that some vestige of the current efforts will be assured of continuing.  I guess it's also possible that every issue identified by the public was already in the 20 initial recommendations.

You can read the November 18 draft report here.

The full committee was supposed to convene a public meeting on November 14, 2011 (via conference call) to discuss this report.  We were all duly noticed because they put the announcement in the Federal Register. Gad!  I missed it!  Again!  But don't worry, that notice included the following message:  "In order for public comments to be most useful to the Committee, they must be submitted by noon on November 14, 2011."  Makes me feel right on top of things as I read all of this process today.

And finally, from the November 18, 2011 report:  "The Subcommittee has the impression that its initial report stimulated interest in taking action to reduce the environmental impact of shale gas production by the administration, state governments, industry, and public interest groups.  However, the progress to date is less than the Subcommittee hoped and it is not clear how to catalyze action at a time when everyone’s attention is focused on economic issues, the press of daily business, and an upcoming election.  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."

Yikes, is this entire effort simply a request by this committee for each individual oil and gas operator involved in fracking to step up to the plate and "do the right thing"?  Kumbaya?

Oddly enough, most of my suggestions are loosely included in the committee's suggestions, so maybe there is a glimmer of hope for these items yet.  It will be interesting to see how much of it survives this process.

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