White House Working Group to Ask: What the Frack?

The heat is on fracking at the grassroots and federal levels. Last week, President Obama issued an Executive Order forming an interagency working group “supporting the safe and responsible development of unconventional natural gas resources.”

In other words at least 13 government agencies are going to sit down together for an intense look-see into fracking, the current darling of the oil and natural gas industry and those who just can’t seem to let go of carbon-based energy solutions, no matter how damaging to the environment.

Under the controversial fracking method of natural gas extraction, water, sand and chemicals are pumped underground at high pressure in order to fracture, or crack open, layers of rock in order to make oil and natural gas accessible. Fracking makes it easier to get at the large deposits of oil and gas from shale formations.

The big downside is that fracking can release harmful pollutants into the air and underground water tables if the well casings aren’t secure. There is also alarming evidence that the process causes earthquakes, which apparently is what happened last year at a fracking site near Blackpool, in England.

This is where the Administration’s working group enters. Maybe it will be able to sort through all the noise about fracking before irreparable damage is done to the earth’s crust and the nation’s clean water supply.

The president’s executive order acknowledges that natural gas provides about 25 percent of the energy consumed in the U.S. It also notes that natural gas production creates jobs and provides economic benefits to the domestic production supply chain, “as well as to chemical and other manufacturers, who benefit from lower feedstock and energy costs. By helping to power our transportation system, greater use of natural gas can also reduce our dependence on oil. And with appropriate safeguards, natural gas can provide a cleaner source of energy than other fossil fuels.”

With that set-up it almost seems that the fix is on for fracking to go forward. But maybe not, as the order continues: “the Federal Government has an important role to play by regulating oil and gas activities on public and Indian trust lands, encouraging greater use of natural gas in transportation, supporting research and development aimed at improving the safety of natural gas development and transportation activities, and setting sensible, cost-effective public health and environmental standards to implement Federal law and augment State safeguards.

“Because efforts to promote safe, responsible, and efficient development of unconventional domestic natural gas resources are underway at a number of executive departments and agencies (agencies), close interagency coordination is important for effective implementation of these programs and activities.” Hence the working group will “facilitate coordinated Administration policy efforts” on the subject, and on whether it is a sustainable solution. On the sustainability issue, see the April 19 TriplePundit story by CSRHub, “Is Fracking Sustainable?”

At least fracking is dubbed “unconventional”; in some quarters that might be considered a huge understatement.

Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency entered the fracking fray in a big way this week when it issued updated standards to reduce air pollution associated with oil and natural production. The standards include the first federal air rules for natural gas wells that are hydraulically fractured, “specifically requiring operators of new fractured natural gas wells to use cost-effective technologies and practices to capture natural gas that might otherwise escape the well, which can subsequently be sold.”

The EPA says an estimated 13,000 new and existing natural gas wells are fractured or re-fractured each year. As those wells are being prepared for production, they emit volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, that contribute to smog formation, and air toxics, including benzene and hexane, which can cause cancer and other serious health effects. The rule is also expected to reduce the emission of methane, the primary constituent of natural gas. Methane, when released directly to the atmosphere, is a potent greenhouse gas—more than 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Maybe these actions will take the fracking debate up — or down — a notch and out of the hands of those most heavily invested in seeing it happen throughout the land as fast as possible without any oversight.

[Image credit: Frack by brutha nick via Flickr CC]

writer, editor, reader and general good (ok mostly good, well sometimes good) guy trying to get by

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