Thursday, June 4, 2009

Hydraulic Fracturing to be Regulated?

Earlier this week I complained about some of the aspects of President Obama's energy policy that I felt harmed domestic natural gas production. Another issue of importance to the gas drilling industry that has been added to the national agenda is regulation of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking."

Reps. Diana DeGette of Colorado and Maurice Hinchey of New York plan to reintroduce a bill that would repeal an exemption on regulating fracking under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. (another article from the Houston Chronicle) The ban on fracking regulation was part of the 2005 energy bill and was based on an EPA conclusion that fracking did little to harm groundwater. That bill was infamously written by the energy industry, so it's no surprise that it is facing a high level of scrutiny. As unconventional drilling has surged in the U.S. in recent years, fracking is used in an estimated 90% of new wells drilled. A few recent unflattering news stories haven't helped to increase its popularity.

The gas industry is understandably reluctant to have fracking be regulated. Right now, much of the conversation in Washington is about disclosing the exact contents of liquids injected in the process. I recently read a list of chemicals used for one well (although not the exact proportions) and it's a gnarly witch's brew that likely will cause some people to freak out. The contents and proportions are basically trade secrets for the operator and the contractor, which is another reason the gas industry is reluctant to share too many details.

I look at the Haynesville Shale and see that the wells are drilled deeper than 10,000 feet and are well below the aquifers. The holes are cemented the entire way, so I don't see lots of potential damage to the water supplies in the Haynesville Play. Most other unconventional plays are located closer to the surface, so I imagine there are greater ground water fears - whether or not they may be realistic - and water is a huge issue, especially in the western U.S.

My position generally is that the gas industry needs to get in front of these kinds of situations and be a good citizen. I realize that is a somewhat naive position, but the energy expended in stonewalling and preventing regulation should be spent in a proactive fashion working towards a compromise. The ultimate goal should be to drill and produce! It is a complicated situation, but some level of disclosure is better than trying to keep stiff-arming and pushing it off. If the public had a better understanding of how the drilling process works and the safety measures that are taken, it might feel a little better about the icky chemicals that are necessary to the process. Cooperation at some level is the key to future success.

But the most important issue is that Congress shouldn't diddle around with a process that is so important to our nation's energy independence.

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