Monday, August 22, 2011

Steering the Hydraulic Fracturing Debate Towards Reason

Last week, the Natural Gas Subcommittee of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board released a report commissioned by DOE Secretary Steven Chu with recommendations "to improve the safety and environmental performance of natural gas hydraulic fracturing from shale formations." (Full report; executive summary)  You can read the executive summary for specifics, but the report makes level-headed suggestions about making the process of hydraulic fracturing more transparent and safe through better access to information, development of best practices and enhanced research and development.  Common sense stuff.

In the past few days, some non-right leaning newspaper editorials have endorsed the Subcommittee's findings.  The New York Times took a well-deserved beating for its recent series on natural gas, but its editorial board takes a more measured approach to the fracking debate.  The Boston Globe similarly dials back the rhetoric ("Re-thinking the fracking debate").

In the Globe column, the writer notes that the biggest problem in keeping the debate civil is that "sides have been chosen, with little room for negotiation." There is a significant lack of trust between the two sides and the energy industry "tends to fight rather than listen."  After watching the debate get ugly over the past two years, I'd have to say the same thing about the environmentalists who oppose fracking.

I don't think this report will change opinions that have been locked in, but it does set the tone as to how the federal government might approach the issue.  Don't look for top-down control, about which many in the energy industry have warned.  As many have pointed out, regulation should be at the state level, if only because each state's circumstances are different.  But what is clear is that there is much room for improvement for the natural gas industry, both in terms of transparency and development (and adherence) to good practices.

Trust between the two sides may never truly be achieved - especially in a post-BP Macondo world - but both sides need to take steps towards a solution rather than a fight.  Natural gas is for real and the opportunity is now for the U.S. to gain from our nation's abundant supply of the fuel.

One of my biggest fears with the advent of the Silly Season is that the with  issue of fracking will get pulled into the Republican vs. Democrat fight.  That's going to be a meat grinder for any issue.  I already know of political groups that have adopted the issue, either pro or con, to induce fundraising, but I hope the issue doesn't become a centerpiece.  In the game of tennis, the tennis ball never wins the match.

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