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U.S. Shale Gas Regulators Struggle To Keep Up With Rapid Development, Government Finds

First Posted: 10/09/2012 9:37 pm Updated: 10/16/2012 5:24 am


* Regulators not always sure about activity at well sites

* Hydraulic fracturing exempt from some regulations

* Lawmaker says regulators have "one hand tied behind their back"

By Ayesha Rascoe

WASHINGTON, Oct 9 (Reuters) - U.S. regulators are having a tough time keeping pace with rapidly expanding shale oil and gas development, according to a report from a government watchdog released on Tuesday.

Legal limitations and a lack of key data have hampered the Environmental Protection Agency's oversight of shale production, said the report from the Government Accountability Office, Congress' non-partisan investigative arm.

"Officials at EPA reported that conducting inspection and enforcement activities for oil and gas development from unconventional reservoirs is challenging due to limited information, as well as the dispersed nature of the industry and the rapid pace of development," the report said.

Breakthroughs in horizontal drilling techniques and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in recent years have unlocked massive oil and gas reserves trapped in shale formations.

But the surge in domestic drilling has raised concerns about possible water and air pollution.

Both President Barack Obama and his Republican challenger, Governor Mitt Romney, have touted the shale boom on the campaign trail, with Romney pledging to keep states in charge of most onshore drilling.

The Obama administration has said that states are the primary regulators of shale energy output, but the federal government can offer a template for effective oversight.

Critics of shale oil and gas drilling have charged that federal regulation of the practice is inadequate, especially since hydraulic fracturing is exempt from certain EPA rules.

The report was requested by Democrats in the House of Representatives and the Senate who have raised questions about fracking.

The GAO found that the EPA has difficulty investigating water contamination cases because there is often no information on the quality of water before drilling began to use for analysis.

A separate report issued by the GAO on Tuesday reviewing hazards associated with shale energy development said the risk to aquifers may be linked to the depth of drilling, citing studies that have found that the fracturing process itself was unlikely to directly affect groundwater because drilling typically takes place thousands of feet below water sources.

In the GAO's report on challenges regulating shale production, the EPA said it does not always know where to conduct inspections or enforce certain regulations because it sometimes does not have information on what activities are going on at well sites.

In some cases, the EPA must completely rely on companies to identify themselves as subject to regulations, the GAO reported.

"Regulators have operated with one hand tied behind their back for too long when it comes to the oil and gas industry," said Congressman Edward Markey, one of the lawmakers who requested the report.

Markey and other lawmakers have pushed for legislation that would expand federal oversight of hydraulic fracturing, a move the industry has warned is unnecessary and could curb development.

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  • PRO: Potential Energy Independence

    Estimates by the <a href="http://www.eia.gov/pub/oil_gas/natural_gas/data_publications/crude_oil_natural_gas_reserves/current/pdf/arrsummary.pdf" target="_hplink">United States Department of Energy</a> put the number of recoverable barrels of shale gas at around 1.8 trillion. To put that into perspective, Saudi Arabia is estimated to have roughly <a href="http://www.opec.org/opec_web/en/data_graphs/330.htm" target="_hplink">2.6 trillion barrels of oil reserves</a>. Christopher Booker writes for <em>The Telegraph</em><a href="http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/columnists/christopherbooker/8500496/Shale-gas-could-solve-the-worlds-energy-problems.html" target="_hplink"></a> that there are enough world reserves to "keep industrialised civilisation going for hundreds of years"

  • CON: Water Pollution

    A <a href="http://switchboard.nrdc.org/blogs/amall/incidents_where_hydraulic_frac.html" target="_hplink">blog post by the Natural Resource Defense Council</a> explains that "Opponents of such regulation [of fracking] claim that hydraulic fracturing has never caused any drinking water contamination. They say this because incidents of drinking water contamination where hydraulic fracutring is considered as a suspected cause have not been sufficiently investigated." It then goes on to list more than two dozen instances of water pollution to which hydraulic fracking is believed to have contributed. A <a href="http://insideclimatenews.org/news/20111104/gasfrac-propane-natural-gas-drilling-hydraulic-fracturing-fracking-drinking-water-marcellus-shale-new-york" target="_hplink">new waterless method of fracking</a> has been proposed, but environmentalists are skeptical.

  • CON: Leaks More Emissions Than Coal

    Methane is a greenhouse gas and <a href="http://www.ucsusa.org/clean_energy/technology_and_impacts/energy_technologies/how-natural-gas-works.html#enviroimpacts" target="_hplink">major component of shale's carbon footprint</a>. Cornell Professor Robert Howarth said about a study he conducted, "Compared to coal, the footprint of shale gas is at least 20 percent greater and perhaps more than twice as great on the 20-year horizon and is comparable when compared over 100 years."

  • PRO: Burns Cleaner Than Other Fossil Fuels

    <a href="http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=natural-gas-could-serve-as-bridge-fuel-to-low-carbon-future" target="_hplink">Researchers at MIT found that</a> replacing coal power plants with natural gas plants could work as part of a plan to reduce greenhouse emissions by more than 50 percent.

  • CON: Hydraulic Fracking Has Been Linked To Earthquakes

    <a href="http://oilprice.com/Energy/Natural-Gas/U.S.-Government-Confirms-Link-Between-Earthquakes-and-Hydraulic-Fracturing.html" target="_hplink">Several earthquakes both in the U.S. and abroad </a> have been linked to the hydraulic fracturing process. One British company, <a href="http://www.cuadrillaresources.com/cms/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Cuadrilla-Resources-Press-Release-02-11-11.pdf" target="_hplink">Cuadrilla Resources</a>, admitted in a report that its hydraulic fracturing process well "did trigger a number of minor seismic events."

  • PRO: Jobs

    <a href="http://www.treehugger.com/fossil-fuels/facts-on-fracking-pros-cons-of-hydraulic-fracturing-for-natural-gas-infographic.html" target="_hplink">The industry currently employs more than 1.2 million people</a> in the U.S., and the Department of Energy estimates that natural gas resources have increased nearly 65 percent due to fracking, according to a TreeHugger graphic. Additionally, <a href="http://www.bu.edu/energy/files/2011/07/Fracking-article-Sept-14-2011.pdf" target="_hplink">the gas industry accounts for about $385 billion</a> in direct economic activity in the country, a <em>Nature</em> piece reports.

  • CON: Companies Don't Have To Disclose Chemicals Used In Process

    <a href="http://water.epa.gov/type/groundwater/uic/class2/hydraulicfracturing/wells_hydroreg.cfm" target="_hplink">Fracking is exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act of 2005</a>, thus allowing companies to conceal the chemicals used in the process.

  • PRO: Buys Time To Develop Renewable Energy

    Former chief of staff to President Clinton and former head of the Center for American Progress <a href="http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/could-shale-gas-reignite-the-us-economy-11032011_page_2.html" target="_hplink">John Podesta says natural gas can serve</a> "as a bridge fuel to a 21st century energy economy that relies on efficiency, renewable sources, and low-carbon fossil fuels."

  • CON: Requires Large Amounts Of Water

    The fracking process can require around <a href="http://www.hydraulicfracturing.com/Water-Usage/Pages/Information.aspx" target="_hplink">five million gallons</a> of water. In some cases<a href="http://www.treehugger.com/fossil-fuels/facts-on-fracking-pros-cons-of-hydraulic-fracturing-for-natural-gas-infographic.html" target="_hplink"> less than a third of that water is recovered</a>.

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