Practicing oil and gas law in Texas competently also requires being aware of the “bigger picture” in which I work. One component of that bigger picture these days is the issue of energy independence.
Energy independence has become a major political issue in recent years, and has resulted in increased efforts to find ways to reduce the United States’ dependence on importing foreign oil to meet our nation’s energy needs. Renewable energy sources and nuclear solutions have been discussed as alternatives to importing oil, but our country’s natural gas reserves are also an important part of our national energy policy moving forward. Ancillary to this national discussion, the production of natural gas, and in particular, the practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracing, has come under attack.
Natural gas is often contained within dense shale formations underground, and fracing is a process used to extract those reserves of natural gas. The process itself involves the use of water combined with sand and chemicals and pumped into the shale formations to fracture them and allow the release of the gas held in the rock.
To my knowledge (and I research this issue), there has never been a documented case of the fracing process injuring a water well. Those who suggest otherwise (such as the producers of “Gasland”) are not being honest with the public or themselves. I wrote a previous article on this blog outlining the reasons for my statement.
Notwithstanding the lack of evidence of injury to water wells, there has been so much hysteria generated by this issue, that in depth studies by experts are welcome.
The New York Times reports that U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu has appointed a panel of seven individuals to perform the study. John Deutch is the chairman of the panel, and is a professor and dean of science at the Massachusetts Institution of Technology. He was the undersecretary of Energy in the Carter administration and the deputy secretary of defense and director of the Central Intelligence Agency during the Clinton administration. He is also a member of the board of directors at Raytheon and Cheniere Energy. Deutch is tasked with finding ways to improve the safety of fracing and providing advice to state and federal agencies that will enable them to safeguard citizens’ health. Given the lack of industry experience of Mr. Deutch, one wonders if the results of this particular study will be accurate, or merely political fodder.
On the other hand, the Houston Chronicle reports that the University of Texas will also be studying the effects of fracing and the effectiveness of current regulations at making fracing a safe process. Chip Groat, the current dean of the Jackson School of Geosciences at the University of Texas is leading this study. Dr. Groat was the head of the United States Geological Society during the Clinton and Bush administrations, and will bring his expertise in understanding complex natural water systems to bear on the issue of hydraulic fracturing.
Finally, the Environmental Protection Agency has also been tasked with studying the effects of fracing on public and environmental health, and formed a panel of 22 people to provide advice and recommendations on the study plan. Dr. David A. Dzombak, a Senior Professor of Environmental Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania was named as the chairman of the panel. He is the faculty director of the Steinbrenner Institute for Environmental Education and Research, and has served on the EPA’s Science Advisory board for four years. His expertise is in aquatic chemistry, the transport of chemicals in water, soil, and sediment, and the restoration of watersheds and rivers.
Hopefully, given the range of relevant experience and knowledge of at least some of the people involved with these studies, if there are real problems with fracing, they can be identified, and the hysteria regarding fracing can be put to rest.