By John Kemp
LONDON, March 13 Environmentalists and the
energy industry appear to be edging towards a consensus that
would permit a big expansion in hydraulic fracturing for oil and
gas in exchange for stricter rules on engineering procedures
such as well casing and cementing.
In a thoughtful article in the "Wall Street Journal",
Russell Gold explains how energy officials and some
environmental campaigners are converging on the view that poor
well construction, rather than fracking itself, has been
responsible for recorded instances of groundwater contamination
("Faulty Wells, Not Fracking, Blamed for Water Pollution", March
The distinction is crucial. If the pollution is associated
with faulty construction, then it can be solved with better
industry practices and tougher regulations. If contamination is
inherent in the fracturing process, it is hard to see how any
amount of regulation and better design can make it safe.
"The groundwater pollution incidents that have come to light
to date have all been caused by well construction problems,"
according to Scott Anderson, a senior policy adviser with the
Environmental Defense Fund, a campaigning and litigation group,
quoted in the Journal.
Pinning responsibility on poor well design and construction,
rather than fracturing, suggests that fracked wells are no more
dangerous than conventional ones. It suggests fracking can be
made safer through relatively simple improvements, rather than
banning the technology outright.
Crucially, it could make fracking politically acceptable,
buying the industry a much-needed "social license to operate"
and opening the way for politicians to endorse the practice. The
result could eventually be a big expansion in fracking across
new areas of the United States and in Europe.
BOWING TO REALITY
Few politicians are comfortable embracing fracking openly.
U.S. President Barack Obama prefers to talk about "gas from
shale" and never mentions the f-word directly. France has banned
the practice. Bulgaria and other jurisdictions have imposed a
moratorium pending further studies.
But the technique's potential to unlock vast quantities of
natural gas and eventually crude oil from tight rock formations
is simply too important to give up. Mastering the technology is
also essential to implement future carbon capture and storage
projects that involve pumping carbon dioxide underground.
For politicians in the United States and Western Europe,
fracking is a miraculous technology that promises abundant
affordable energy, reduced dependence on oil and gas supplies
from the unstable Middle East, and a way to cut carbon emissions
painlessly by substituting cleaner-burning natural gas for dirty
For environmentalists, fracking promises a reduction in
emissions and increased availability of cheap gas as a back-up
fuel to intermittent power generation from wind and solar.
For industry, fracking promises international oil companies,
and a host of smaller and more innovative independents, access
to new resources in stable countries with welcoming operating
environments, avoiding the problems with resource nationalism
that have hampered expansion in the major conventional oil and
gas producing countries like Saudi Arabia, Libya and Russia.
For consumers, fracking promises cheap gas and gasoline. It
is truly a win-win-win-win technology. But only if it can be
exploited in a safe and acceptable manner.
It is a vital part of what the International Energy Agency
(IEA) has called a "golden age of gas." Policymakers and
environmentalists hope natural gas, much of it from fracking,
can provide a bridge fuel to a low-carbon future. No wonder that
there is so much interest in trying to resolve outstanding
health and safety concerns.
SAFE AND ACCEPTABLE
It is virtually unthinkable that the United States and most
other countries could turn their back on fracking now (parts of
Europe may be an exception).
The Obama administration has already made plentiful domestic
gas supplies a central plank of its "all of the above" strategy
for energy security. Banning or heavily restricting fracking
would imply surging natural gas prices and a return to the peak
gas and peak oil alarmism in the middle of the last decade.
Not even environmental groups can afford to come out openly
opposing fracking because they do not want to be blamed for
another surge in energy costs. Right now the mantra is that
energy must be both clean and affordable.
So there is an immense amount of activity going on in the
background to find a way to make fracking more acceptable.
The first step is to define the concerns properly (and
On the technical front, the Energy Institute at the
University of Texas has published a 414-page report calling for
"Fact-based regulation for environmental protection in shale gas
development" which sets out to define the various environmental
concerns quite precisely and dispel myths.
On the legal and safety side, the EU has commissioned a
detailed survey of the regulatory and legal regime governing
fracking in member states.
The second step is to craft appropriate regulations which
respond (or at least appear to respond) to those concerns.
The IEA is working on a set of "golden rules" for the golden
age of gas. The U.S. National Petroleum Council's 2011 report on
"Prudent development: realising the potential of North America's
abundant natural gas and oil resources" called for an approach
based on sharing industry best practices.
In Pennsylvania, New York and Ohio, state regulators have or
are about to adopt new standards on well construction. As part
of a settlement with the state of Pennsylvania after an early
gas leak into groundwater, Chesapeake Energy agreed to change
how it built wells in the state, according to the Wall Street
Journal article, to make leaks less likely in future.
It is all about what diplomats call "optics".
Industry working groups, regulators meeting under the
auspices of the IEA, and researchers at universities and from
lobbying groups are all groping towards a new consensus on how
to allow fracking to be done in a safe manner that maintains
public confidence while securing energy supplies.
If regulators and the industry can pin down a specific set
of concerns, and convince voters that they have addressed them
through new regulations, fracking can be allowed to continue,
and even spread to areas currently considered off-limits.