In a series of posts leading up to the World Economic Forum’s New Energy Architecture report launched on Monday 23rd April 2012, Fred Krupp, President of the Environmental Defense Fund, talks about the environmental challenges of unlocking the potential of shale gas. 

As newly abundant shale gas transforms the US energy economy – burgeoning from 2% of total US natural gas supply in 2001 to about 30% today – environmental concerns have overtaken the public debate. People across the US worry that shale gas cannot be tapped without polluting their drinking water, fouling their air and overwhelming their communities. A significant segment of the public has concluded that of the three imperatives of the energy triangle – growth, sustainability and security – the environmental challenge is not being met.

As a result, communities around the US are having a shale gas rethink. From New York to Pennsylvania to Colorado to Texas, cities and counties are enacting rules to regulate, limit and sometimes block development. As the shale gas revolution moves around the globe, with significant reserves identified in China, Argentina, Poland and Mexico, opposition is also spreading. France, for example, has imposed a nationwide ban on hydraulic fracturing.

It does not have to be this way. And the irony is that environmentalists such as myself had cheered the prospect of a shale gas revolution precisely because of the environmental benefit it offered. Since natural gas releases less carbon dioxide when burned than coal, it gives us a short-term way to reduce the emissions that cause global climate change. As we work to shut down our dirtiest coal-fired power plants, demand for natural gas will increase, until the day when truly clean energy sources such as wind and solar achieve industrial scale.

Some are concerned that shale gas will slow the transition to wind and solar. While these concerns are understandable, since the need to accelerate this transition is so great, the truth is that until we develop cost-effective systems for large-scale energy storage, natural-gas fired power will help us deal  with the intermittency of wind and solar. Shale gas is a complement to renewable energy, but efforts to make it safe are no substitute for a sensible climate and energy policy. Though natural gas can be an important piece of a cleaner future reaping its benefits requires us to reduce local environmental threats and allay public concerns about impacts to air, water and lands.

Last spring, at the direction of President Obama, US Energy Secretary Stephen Chu created a seven-member natural gas advisory board, charged with recommending ways to ensure that this resource can be tapped safely. I was privileged to serve on this panel, chaired by MIT professor John Deutch, which held a series of hearings, visited well sites and convened a public meeting in southern Pennsylvania to hear directly from people living with intensive shale gas development. While no government panel by itself can restore public trust, I believe our recommendations – if put into place by state and federal regulators and the industry – could help lead the way forward.

The panel’s two reports, released in August and November 2011, are a call to action, stating unequivocally that “Americans deserve assurance that the full economic, environmental and energy security benefits of shale gas development will be realized without sacrificing public health, environmental protection or safety…This means that resources dedicated to oversight of the industry must be sufficient to do the job”.

I have no doubt that smart, muscular regulation is essential to re-establishing public trust, and I am pleased that the panel endorsed this conclusion.

Industry’s failure to disclose the chemicals used to fracture shale formations is one reason trust has eroded. The panel emphasized the need for comprehensive fracking chemical disclosure rules, as well as new standards for well construction and wastewater management. The industry must also provide more data on operations, including emissions of methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas. Methane leakage in the production and distribution of natural gas undermines its climate advantage over other fossil fuels. The panel called for better data collection on leaks and tough standards to reduce these emissions.

The report also calls for the assessment of baseline water quality, disclosure of the composition of drilling wastewater and measurement of air emissions. It calls for a national database of public information on shale gas operations and an industry-led organization dedicated to improvement of best practices.

It is not easy to balance public safety and energy security, but it is essential. Despite the anger and mistrust surrounding the shale gas issue, industry leaders and environmentalists are already working together on the guidelines needed to ensure a safe shale-gas revival. The Environmental Defense Fund, where I work, is collaborating with Southwestern Energy and others to draft model regulations for well integrity that can be tailored to the specific needs and circumstances of each state.

This model regulatory framework, together with implementation of the committee’s recommendations, has the potential to change the atmosphere around US shale gas development, but only if industry, environmentalists, and regulators work together. After a year of acrimony, it is high time we did more of that.

Author: Fred Krupp is President of the Environmental Defense Fund, USA

Pictured: A gas flare burns at a fracking site in rural Bradford County, Pennsylvania January 9, 2012. Flaring, or burning off excess gas, can release pollutants into the air, depending on the type of gas burned and the temperature of the fire, according to environmental activist group Earthworks. The U.S. Energy Department has urged regulators to require drillers to detail what chemicals they use in hydraulic fracturing — which involves blasting a mix of water, sand and chemicals into rock formations to release oil and gas — and release more information about the drilling technique’s impact. Picture taken January 9, 2012. REUTERS/Les Stone