DOE Seeks Tighter Controls on Natural Gas Production

Sept. 1, 2011
A Department of Energy advisory committee has called for tighter environmental controls on the production of natural gas ...

By Patrick Crow, Washington Correspondent

A Department of Energy advisory committee has called for tighter environmental controls on the production of natural gas from shale formations.

Concerns have been raised about the potential pollution of groundwater resources when shale wells are hydraulically fractured with chemicals to increase the gas flow.

The department’s Shale Gas Production Subcommittee called for increased measurement, public disclosure, and improvements in the environmental management of shale gas, which has skyrocketed to nearly 30% of U.S. gas output in the past decade.

The report said industry and government should make information about shale gas production operations more accessible to the public; act to reduce environmental and safety risks with a focus on protecting air and water quality; promote best operating practices; and form a research and development program to improve safety and environmental performance.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the senior Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, said the federal government wants to increase its control of shale gas -- although states regulate most production.

Inhofe said, “We have seen the results of Washington’s regulation on federal lands: it leads to less development, less jobs, and less economic growth. America became the largest producer of natural gas precisely because our immense shale deposits are located predominantly in areas of the country where states primarily regulate oil and gas development, not the federal government. Instead of increasing the federal government’s regulatory reach, we should be building on the success of states that have been efficiently and effectively regulating hydraulic fracturing for decades.”

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) said the advisory panel “sidestepped the crucial question of whether hydraulic fracturing technology should remain exempt from most federal environmental regulation.”

The group added, “The panel had nothing to say about the industry’s common practice of suppressing information about contamination incidents by requiring families seeking compensation or delivery of safe water to sign confidentiality agreements.”

EWG General Counsel Heather White said, “We will not see necessary changes in chemical transparency, air or water quality so long as the industry is able to keep playing by its own rules. Continuing to avoid federal environmental laws and allowing hush money to stand in the way of public understanding and thorough scientific investigation ultimately brings us nowhere.”

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is working on its own study of hydraulic fracturing. More than 100 public health, environmental, and government watchdog groups recently urged EPA to ensure that gas producers fully disclose health and safety information regarding the chemicals used in fracturing.

Coal Mining

Meanwhile, EPA has issued a final guidance which it said would ensure that more consistent, effective, and timely reviews of Appalachian surface coal mining permits are made under the Clean Water Act and other statutes.

The guidance, which replaces an interim EPA guidance issued in April 2010, is based on best-available science and incorporates input from more than 60,000 comments.

The agency said the guidelines will help its staff, states, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and mining companies take a balanced approach that protects communities from harmful pollution associated with coal mining.

EPA said it would apply the guidance flexibly, taking into account site-specific information and additional science to arrive at the best decisions on a case-by-case basis.

It said the science underlying the interim-final guidance has been successfully applied in a number of mining decisions, including the Hobet 45 permit in West Virginia, where EPA worked closely with a company to eliminate nearly 50% of their stream impacts, reduce contamination and lower mining costs.

And EPA said the successful negotiation of the Corps’ Coal Mac-Pine Creek permit decision also showed that the practices in the interim guidance are feasible and effective.

The agency noted that the final guidance, like the interim guidance, is not a rule and is not binding legally or in practice.

Mountaintop mining uses explosives to open coal seams, generating large volumes of waste that bury adjacent streams. EPA said the practice buries valleys and streams -- compromising water quality and often causing permanent damage to ecosystems. It said mountaintop coal mining has buried 2,000 miles of Appalachian headwater streams.

In other Washington news:

-- EPA said Dow Chemical Co. will pay a $2.5 million civil penalty to settle alleged violations of environmental laws at its chemical manufacturing and research complex in Midland, Mich. Dow also will reduce emissions of volatile organic compounds and hazardous air pollutants from leaking valves and pumps.

-- The agency has reached an agreement with Wyeth Holdings Corp., a Pfizer Inc. subsidiary, to install a system to collect and treat contaminated ground water from the American Cyanamid Superfund Site in Bridgewater Township, Somerset County, N.J. That system would prevent contaminants from reaching the Raritan River.

-- EPA has ordered six concentrated animal feeding operations in the Midwest to correct a range of Clean Water Act violations. The orders went to three beef feedlots in Nebraska, one in Kansas, one in Iowa, and an egg layer operation in Nebraska.

-- USDA has earmarked $100 million through the Wetlands Reserve Program to acquire permanent easements from landowners and restore wetlands on 24,000 acres of agricultural land in the Northern Everglades Watershed.

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