On June 21, 2011, the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) and Heinrich Boell Foundation held a briefing on the development of shale gas using hydraulic fracturing technology. Also known as "fracking", the increased deployment of this technology has come under greater scrutiny in the United States and Germany for numerous reasons: increased water use, impact of the chemicals used, challenges of how to treat wastewater, and induced seismicity. Recent research by Cornell University found that shale gas has a greenhouse gas footprint comparable to coal. At this briefing, U.S. and German experts from the state, federal, and NGO communities shared their perspectives as both countries debate whether and how fracking should be regulated to preserve the economic benefits gained from lower natural gas prices and to protect the health of communities near well sites.
- The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is conducting a multi-year study to assess the impact of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources, and to identify the driving factors that affect the severity and frequency of any impacts.
- The two-part study will be published in 2012 and 2014, and incorporate case studies with the help of state and local partners, the Department of Energy, U.S. Geological Survey, state oil and gas commissions, and industry and environmental groups.
- Fundamental research questions include:
- How might large volume water withdrawals from ground and surface water impact drinking water resources?
- What are the possible impacts of releases of flowback and produced water on drinking water resources?
- What are the possible impacts of inadequate treatment of hydraulic fracturing wastewaters on drinking water resources?
- Poland and France have some of the highest shale gas potential in Europe. In contrast, Germany has relatively little. However, shale gas development in the United States is being watched intensely in Germany and other European countries to learn from U.S. experience.
- German mining law governs development of shale gas and other extractive industries, but does not allow for much civic participation. There is some difference between the United States and Germany, as communities around well sites might not be informed about drilling activity. German mining law needs reform to make gas development more open to public scrutiny, according to Wibke Brems, state legislator from Northrhine Westphalia, Germany.
- In Germany, a formal analysis of the impact shale gas would have on the surrounding environment, known as an Environmental Impact Statement, normally would not be required because the threshold for compliance is higher than the typical output of well sites.
- Pennsylvania has a long history of natural resource extraction, including oil, timber, and coal. However, the environmental impacts of shale gas development from the Marcellus shale and Utica shale (an older, deeper natural gas deposit below Marcellus) will dwarf the cumulative impacts from those resources, according to John Quigley, former secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
- Roughly 25 percent of Pennsylvania’s land area (approximately 7 million acres) is leased for drilling, and the number of wells to be drilled in coming decades makes more accidents inevitable. However, shale gas represents a vast domestic energy resource which, if developed properly, could produce jobs, increase landowner wealth, and displace pollution from coal-fired power plants.
- Pennsylvania has started to test water quality which includes radionuclide testing. However, more regulation is needed, according to Quigley. Pennsylvania is the only gas-producing state that does not levy a tax on drilling.
- Compared to coal-fired power plants, natural gas plants use less water, produces no ash waste, and has a generally smaller greenhouse gas profile. Natural gas power plants are more adjustable than coal plants, which make them a more suitable complement to variable renewable energy resources like solar and wind.
Related Media Coverage
Regulating hope out of gas? Nonsense. by John Quigley, PennFuture blog
Regulating the Hope Out of Natural Gas by Andrea Seffens, Freedom Works
Pa. regulators 'playing catch-up' on fracking, former official says by Mike Soraghan, E&E News (subscription required)
While Poland has announced major investments in shale gas development as a way to break free from Russian natural gas, countries like France and Germany are proceeding cautiously over environmental concerns. Yet, Germany plans to phase out its 17 nuclear reactors and needs to find replacement power that meets its climate goals. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania, New York, and other states are struggling with the goal to produce energy domestically and the need to protect the well being of communities over which shale gas is located. The U.S. EPA has undertaken a multi-year effort to study the effects of fracking on water resources while a growing body of recent scientific reports point to the negative effects current fracking practices have on the environment and communities.