Over the last two years, shale natural gas has emerged as a major player in America’s energy mix. President Obama has referred to it as “critical” to the nation’s energy blueprint for the future, and he directed Energy Secretary Steven Chu to form a Natural Gas Subcommittee in his department to examine extraction practices and their effects on health and the environment.
But along with a boom in discovered reserves of natural gas in the United States and an emphasis from the administration and industry on gas as a clean fuel, criticism has risen about drilling methods and the potential emissions and groundwater contamination that could result.
Still, National Journal Energy and Environment Insiders were split on whether the Environmental Protection Agency should reevaluate natural gas as a clean alternative to coal, with many arguing that all energy sources should be evaluated for their life-cycle environmental footprint.
Fifty-one percent of Insiders said that EPA or another federal agency should look into the life-cycle emissions of natural gas, while 49 percent said that wasn't necessary.
Most Insiders supporting further study argued that all fuels deserve the same scrutiny.
“We should understand the environmental footprint of every energy source -- that’s the only way to make a rational judgment about which sources to develop, and how to develop them,” one Insider said.
The all-of-the-above approach was a resounding theme among Insiders, who were not necessarily prescriptive about a federal study but were not opposed to one.
“A reevaluation would be a good idea to clear the idea and establish the facts,” one Insider said.
Though many agreed that all energy sources should be vetted, nearly half of all Insiders opposed any further study of natural gas, arguing that it would hold back the development of an abundant and important resource.
“Saying no until the perfect solution arrives impedes progress,” one Insider said, while another argued that adding that layer of regulation would increase consumers' costs.
In addition, many opponents of the life-cycle analysis asserted that the recent reports suggesting natural gas was not cleaner than coal had “significant flaws.”
“The Cornell report is a discredited joke,” one Insider said of the study released this year by Cornell University researcher Robert Howarth. “Even the environmental community has kept it at arm’s length,” the Insider added.
Since its release, the study and its conclusions have faced significant criticism for the lack of peer review and for the data used.
Insiders maintained that “gas is still far preferable to coal” and that it is “clearly the cleaner alternative.”
“While there are changes in the estimates that require some reexamination of methane emissions from gas production and delivery, the emissions advantage of natural gas still remains strong,” one Insider said.
EPA is currently studying hydraulic fracturing and its effects on water supplies. It is set to issue a preliminary report by the end of the year, but its final conclusions are not expected till 2014.
Meanwhile, the DOE panel examining the public health and environment risks associated with hydraulic fracturing has been holding public hearings with shale-gas stakeholders to discuss, among other issues, the regulation of the controversial drilling method.
In that regard, nearly 60 percent of Insiders think that state regulators should primarily oversee natural gas drilling, arguing that “the federal government would only make it worse,” while 36 percent argued that the federal government should take charge.
“States must lead the effort to regulate the practices around natural-gas drilling, mainly because of the regional and topographical differences in each individual drilling site. A one-size-fits-all approach would not work very well,” one Insider said, and another contended that the federal government would only make the regulatory process worse.”
That kind of position is something that industry representatives support.
In the DOE advisory panel’s meeting earlier this month, Jack Williams, president of ExxonMobil subsidiary XTO Energy said that the “beauty of having states playing this role” is that regulations can be tailored to the regional differences.
Still, while many Insiders maintained that state regulators should play the key regulatory role, they saw room for the federal government to get involved. In fact, most Insiders saw some sort of combination as the ideal option.
One Insider suggested, “The federal government should set some benchmarks, but leave the primary authority with the states.”
Conversely, some Insiders argued that the federal government needs to take charge of regulating the controversial drilling method, with the states playing a secondary, but still significant, role.
“A state-by-state approach pits one state against the other in a lowest common denominator war of attrition and sets up inefficient multiheaded regulatory schemes that vary in 50 different ways,” one Insider said, adding that “on a national commodity like natural gas, making sure that companies play be the same rules everywhere just makes sense.”
Some reports have indicated natural gas could have a bigger greenhouse-gas footprint than coal when factoring in the drilling process. Should EPA or another federal agency reevaluate natural gas as a clean alternative to coal?
- Yes 51%
- No 45%
“It is likely we can do natural gas right – but we should know if that is true, or if so what it will take to do so.”
“Greenhouse-gas emissions should be measured on a life-cycle basis for all fuels, including natural gas.”
“I don't view such a study as a high priority, but it would be worthwhile to do a serious study to understand the true greenhouse-gas footprint of coal versus conventional gas versus shale gas versus imported liquefied natural gas.”
“The principled answer is: yes, if the facts aren’t clear, they should be reexamined until they are clear. On the other hand, the integrity of the studies in question deserves the same scrutiny.”
“EPA should understand the full environmental impact of all energy technologies, whether it’s gas, solar (energy payback time on panels) or coal and associated impacts such as potential leakage into wells from fracturing technologies. Natural gas puts out less particulates so it has huge advantages over coal.”
This article appears in the June 22, 2011 edition of NJ Daily.