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.”
“It’s going to take both natural gas and coal to meet our future need for electricity generation. Putting up additional regulatory barriers will only increase cost to consumers and make it harder to generate reliable electricity.”
“While EPA should keep current with the best science on the pluses and minuses of all forms of energy, the two recent reports on the environmental impacts of natural gas have significant analytical flaws."
“We need to do a better job of tracking and reporting emissions, which is now inadequate, with only voluntary participation by companies in EPA’s GasStar program. But compared to the larger footprint of coal (from the mine all the way through combustion and wastes), gas still is far preferable to coal.”
“The gov’t shouldn't reevaluate natural gas as both the Cornell and Duke study have significant flaws that make it hard to draw definitive conclusions. It is clearly a cleaner alternative, but still many questions remain about cost variability over time.”
Who should have the primary role in regulating natural gas drilling?
- State regulators 59%
- Federal government 36%
- Industry should self regulate 0%
- Volunteered 5%
“State regulators should set the standards without dictating the technologies and should allow industry the flexibility to achieve those standards. They should also allow industry to self-report when they are in violation without recrimination.”
“States have successfully regulated the practice for over 30 years. Why on earth would anyone who supports energy independence want to get the federal government involved?”
“While drilling should be primarily regulated by state regulators, the federal government should be prepared to regulate to ensure federal statutes, such as the Clean Water Act, are not violated.”
“For consistency sake, the federal government should set some benchmarks but leave the primary authority with the states.”
The federal government
“The federal government (though that includes the states under many environmental statutes).”
“The federal government should have primacy (for purposes of consistency), but there is a significant role for the states.”
“Under the current frameworks of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, states would be responsible for implementing federal standards. “It's hard to see how it would be efficient for the federal government to be directly involved in state-specific operations unless states prove themselves incapable of self-regulating.”
“That federal agencies should have the primary responsibility. However, it’s critical that state agencies play a major role too. Self-regulation would be a joke.”
“It’s not appropriate to ask whether states or the federal government should have the primary role, since the answer depends on so many factors. In the first instance, for gas on federal lands or where the federal government owns the mineral rights, then the federal government already has primary jurisdiction. This is in much of the West and in the Outer Continental Shelf. In the states with natural-gas resources on or under private land, then there are several types of regulation: from decades, natural-gas extraction has really been a land-use issue with primary jurisdiction by the states. Many federal laws are implemented by the state agencies, including some environmental laws. The better question is whether there are exclusions from federal water laws now enjoyed by natural-gas companies; these loopholes should be eliminated. And there should be careful consideration of instances where interstate impacts may arise, in which state-by-state environmental regulation may not suffice.”
“If the growing dynamic of imposing `temporary' local and state moratoria on shale-gas operations continues, industry itself may eventually decide that some form of federal regulation is in its interest.”
National Journal’s Energy and Environment Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of energy policy experts. They include:
Jeff Anderson, Paul Bailey, Kenneth Berlin, Denise Bode, Kevin Book, David Brown, Neil Brown, Stephen Brown, Kateri Callahan, McKie Campbell, Guy Caruso, Paul Cicio, Douglas Clapp, Eileen Claussen, Steve Cochran, Phyllis Cuttino, Kyle Danish, Lee Dehihns, Robbie Diamond, Bob Dinneen, Sean Donahue, Jeff Duncan, John Felmy, Mike Ference, David Foster, Josh Freed, Don Furman, Paul Gilman, Richard Glick, Kate Gordon, Chuck Gray, Jason Grumet, Christopher Guith, Lewis Hay, Jeff Holmstead, David Holt, Skip Horvath, Bob Irvin, Bill Johnson, Gene Karpinski, Joseph T. Kelliher, Brian Kennedy, Kevin Knobloch, David Kreutzer, Fred Krupp, Tom Kuhn, Mindy Lubber, Frank Maisano, Drew Maloney, Roger Martella, John McArther, Mike McKenna, Bill McKibben, David Miller, Kristina Moore, Richard Myers, Aric Newhouse, Frank O'Donnell, Mike Olson, T. Boone Pickens, Thomas Pyle, Hal Quinn, Rhone Resch, Barry Russell, Joseph Schultz, Bob Simon, Scott Sklar, Bill Snape, Jeff Sterba, Christine Tezak, Susan Tierney, Andrew Wheeler, Brian Wolff, and Todd Young.
This article appears in the June 22, 2011, edition of NJ Daily.