Las Vegas Sun

August 18, 2022

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Sun Editorial:

Method of drilling for natural gas needs to be more carefully considered

Drilling companies have been using a process called geological fracturing, or fracking, in recent years because it provides them a way to get at natural gas tucked inside shale deep in the earth. But the method is controversial.

Drillers send a solution of water, chemicals and sand down a well under heavy pressure to create fractures in the rock. The sand keeps the fractures open and allows gas to flow out into the well.

Although energy companies say the process is safe, scientists and environmentalists have raised questions about the environmental impact of the process. There have been clusters of earthquakes associated with fracking, and there is also concern about air and groundwater contamination.

In March, President Barack Obama ordered Energy Secretary Steven Chu to create a subcommittee of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board to study natural gas production, noting that technological advances could allow the nation to tap immense reserves that, he said, could supply the country for up to a century.

The subcommittee issued its draft report Thursday, and although it is bullish in its outlook on natural gas development, it acknowledges the environmental concerns. The panel’s chairman, former CIA Director John Deutch, told The Wall Street Journal, “To say that there are not serious environmental impacts is not sustainable. When you realize we may have several thousand such wells drilled in the U.S. over the next 20 years, it’s important to get this right.”

The report recommends stronger air quality regulations as well as disclosure of air pollutants and the types of chemicals used in the process. It also calls for study of water quality issues, the creation of industry best practices and more public education to help people understand the process. It does not, however, recommend any specific regulations, leaving that for federal agencies.

As The Hill, a newspaper covering Congress, has reported, the subcommittee has faced criticism from both sides of the political spectrum. Some environmentalists have complained that the panel is unbalanced because most of the seven members have ties to the gas industry. Supporters of fracking have complained that the composition of the panel is unfair because it doesn’t have any membership directly from the industry, and Republicans in Congress who support fracking tried to pass legislation requiring that a third of the panel’s members be from the industry.

Environmentalists and industry supporters have criticized the subcommittee’s work. An official with the Environmental Working Group told The Wall Street Journal that the report fell short of what it felt was needed. The American Petroleum Institute, a gas lobbying group, said in a statement that natural gas drilling was “already well regulated and safe.”

The criticism shouldn’t minimize the report’s value. The report should be seen as a foundation for more work. No matter what the industry says, more study and regulation is needed. Fracking promises great potential for gas development, but it also poses great risks. As Deutch said, the nation does need to get this right.

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