by Jennifer A. Dlouhy
WASHINGTON — Energy companies and environmental groups have more often been adversaries than allies when it comes to hydraulic fracturing, the drilling technique used to unlock natural gas from shale rock nationwide.
But a handful of gas producers and environmental advocates are striving to change that dynamic by collaborating on a plan to step up the safety and regulation of hydraulic fracturing.
Now regulated at the state level, the technique involves injecting fluids deep underground and at high pressure to break up shale rock and produce natural gas.
In New York, Pennsylvania and other states with promising shale formations, the industry has faced off with environmentalists who worry that natural gas or the liquids known as “fracking fluids” can contaminate nearby groundwater supplies.
Both sides see gains
Both sides hope to gain by working together.
For environmentalists, it’s an opportunity to stiffen standards for a technique that is increasingly used nationwide and could help boost domestic supplies of a cleaner burning power source.
For the industry, it’s a chance to counter a major PR problem that threatens to undermine support for domestic natural gas production through this method and could drive bans on its use.
Mark Boling, executive vice president of Southwestern Energy, said he hatched the idea for the collaboration because the current debate is becoming more polarized, with a fearful public not soothed by industry assurances that hydraulic fracturing has been safely used for decades.
‘The public is concerned’
“It’s not going to help to keep saying we’ve done it for 60 years and no one’s ever proved” there’s a problem, Boling said. “The fact is, the public is concerned. They are fearful of what they don’t know.”
“It is our obligation as an industry to let them know what the issues and obstacles are and show them we are willing to work with environmental groups and state regulators to come up with solutions,” Boling added.
The new project is still in the very beginning stages, with the Environmental Defense Fund and Houston-based Southwestern Energy at the core.
More than a dozen other companies and environmental groups have been approached about joining the discussion, and several are now part of the talks to develop model regulations that participants say will be “as environmentally protective as reasonably possible.”
The broader discussions build on months of negotiations between Boling and Scott Anderson, a senior policy adviser for EDF, over what is now a 40-page draft of possible regulations they hope can be a model for state officials.
The pair expects that a final proposal – which could be ready next year – will deal with a raft of subsurface issues, from the composition of fracking fluids to the integrity of underground wells.
For instance, the plan could propose that companies disclose more information about the chemical cocktails used in fracturing, force regulators to evaluate the geological formations at proposed wells and mandate better pressure monitoring.
In particular, the companies and environmental groups want to develop new standards to ensure the integrity of wells, given explosions and groundwater contamination linked by some to natural gas wells.
Anderson stressed that better well construction would prevent problems.
“As far as the underground aspect goes, hydraulic fracturing should be perfectly safe, if people get all the other stuff right,” Anderson said. That means the casing program for the well, the cementing and pressure management all need to be done properly, he added.
But state regulation of these issues is spotty.
Some rely on 30-year-old tests for assessing the quality of cement jobs at sites. Many don’t require consideration of whether wells are being built in formations that are robust and thick enough to prevent fluid movement.
The energy companies and environmental groups face high hurdles in developing a final proposal they can all endorse and then build a coalition that can advance it in state capitals nationwide.
Two years ago, more than two dozen businesses and environmental organizations banded together to endorse a plan for combating global warming with nationwide caps on carbon dioxide emissions.
But their proposal – immediately viewed as too watered down by some in the environmental community and as too strict by some businesses – stalled on Capitol Hill.
‘This is much harder’
Industry and environmentalists successfully collaborated on guidelines for the capture and storage of carbon dioxide, but that is a still-developing technology, and participants came to the table without baggage, Anderson noted.
“It wasn’t polarized,” he said. “This is much harder to do in a collaborative way.”
Boling acknowledges the challenge is “formidable,” but notes that by focusing on well integrity issues, the discussions tackle “a familiar area for industry, and one where I think they would agree that as long as you do it right, most everything else takes care of itself.”
Anderson said he is hopeful about consensus because “the issue that we’re tackling is an almost purely technical issue.”
“For the most part, this is a technical problem susceptible to a technical solution,” he said. “For all the issues we might choose to solve, this is the easy one.”
In addition to overcoming historical distrust, both groups face other thorny issues ahead.
A major sticking point could be whether the federal government, in addition to states, should regulate fracking – something industry has widely opposed.
For now, both sides have agreed to disagree. Anderson said environmental advocates aren’t giving up their position on the issue, but added that the model regulations could work for regulators in many jurisdictions.