WASHINGTON—Convincing the natural gas industry that a chemical disclosure protocol should be mandatory has proven to be much more formidable than blasting apart shale rock where the coveted hydrocarbons lurk underground.
And conservationists fear that the disclosure debate is slowing progress on resolving environmental impacts associated with natural gas drilling and its sister act of "fracking"—which is geological slang for hydraulic fracturing.
Those disparities became grist for a polite but enlivened exchange among three topic experts at the conservative Heritage Foundation. It was one of two fracking forums that unfolded in the nation's capital Tuesday afternoon.
"The industry needs to deal with those issues rather than glibly keep saying they are America's clean fuel source," senior policy adviser Scott Anderson of the Environmental Defense Fund told those gathered for "The Promise and Perils of Hydraulic Fracturing: Best Answers to the Hardest Questions."
"Nothing good is going to happen in the natural gas industry ... until this disclosure issue is behind them," Anderson continued. "It's not as if it looks like the industry is hiding something. They are hiding something."
Both of the other Heritage panelists—Mark Boling, executive vice president of Houston-based Southwestern Energy, and Lee Fuller, vice president of government relations with the Independent Petroleum Association of America—agreed that lack of disclosure is a shortcoming.
However, they also pointed fingers at what they labeled environmental alarmists for scaring the public by highlighting and exaggerating the potential links between hydraulic fracturing chemicals and tainted drinking water.
Boling accused activists of waging a fear-based campaign that lacked scientific proof and demonstrable facts.
"If you give them enough fear, people can be scared of chemicals," Fuller said. "The fact that we've been diverted on this path about chemicals ... is an orchestrated effort to try to terrify lots of people."
Interior Setting Federal Precedent?
A few miles away from The Heritage Foundation, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar delivered his own message about disclosure. He told an audience that one of the new mandates the Obama administration is considering would force energy companies deploying hydraulic fracturing on public lands to reveal lists of the chemicals they use.
Interior's Bureau of Land Management oversees 250 million acres of public lands. Regulations on the 48,000 drilling leases the bureau is responsible for haven't been updated recently. Companies are using hydraulic fracturing techniques on about nine out of every 10 wells drilled on public lands, according to government figures.
"There is a lot more opportunity for natural gas, frankly, because fracking is being used," Salazar said at a forum that included two panels of representatives from government, industry and environmental organizations. "The question really in my mind is how we move forward in a way that can reassure the American public that what we are doing is in fact safe and is protective of the environment."
In the meantime, Congress has asked the Environmental Protection Agency to study hydraulic fracturing to see what kinds of federal rules and regulations might become necessary to ensure compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act.
It's Not All About the Chemicals
The Environmental Defense Fund is eager to resolve the current fixation on the chemical disclosure issue rapidly because, like other green groups, the organization is concerned that controversy is drowning out concerns about other ecological hazards affiliated with hydraulic fracturing.
Those include landscape fragmentation caused by the large footprint and network of new roads and other infrastructure required for natural gas drilling, the accompanying noise from such operations, and the threat of health problems caused by spills and improper disposal of waste water.
"Until the disclosure issue is behind us, we can't make any progress," Anderson said, adding that there have been several thousand documented spills and other dangerous incidents at drilling sites. "We need information to have a rational discussion."
In addition, Anderson agreed with the industry that burning natural gas as an energy source emits about half the amount of carbon dioxide as coal. However, he stressed that the jury is still out on a methane emissions, a greenhouse gas twenty times more potent than carbon dioxide.
When researchers eventually compare lifecycle methane emissions of coal and natural gas, he suggested that "natural gas is likely not to be as environmentally advantageous as people think."
Wyoming Leading the Charge
Horizontal drilling performed in tandem with hydraulic fracturing requires well workers to inject sand, massive amounts of water and a cocktail of chemicals deep below the earth's surface. High pressure explodes the shale rock formations, releasing natural gas. Some geologists claim that this new technology's ability to extract energy from less permeable rock makes this country the Saudi Arabia of natural gas.
Though some operations are chemical-free, many count on 40 or 50 types of chemicals to extract the natural gas. One environmental impact study in New York was likely the exception when it included 266 chemicals for the process, according to Environmental Defense Fund research.
In a move that surprised industry and environmental insiders, Wyoming became the first state to require natural gas companies to disclose the chemicals they discharge into the ground. Arkansas is expected to be second in line by the end of the year.
Anderson's wish is that other states with natural gas resources will mimic those initiatives.
"Now that two states have broken the ice, additional states will follow suit," Anderson told SolveClimate News in a post-forum interview. "If you have a proliferation of requirements that are different within the states, then you'll have industry coming to Washington and asking for uniform mandatory standards."
Though Fuller is wary of a congressionally mandated disclosure solution, he agreed that state-led efforts solutions could lift the natural gas industry out of a "difficult public relations situation" by giving "us credibility that we can't generate on our own."
Why Is Industry Dragging Its Feet on Disclosure?
"There are serious and legitimate questions about the toxicity of chemicals," Anderson said in an interview. "Industry is aggressively opposing rules to get people the answers. Politically, industry is shooting itself in the foot by opposing something that is eventually going to happen."
Fuller maintains that much of the chemical disclosure information environmental organizations are seeking is available via the hazardous material data safety sheets required by the Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
But Anderson counters that OSHA data sheets don't provide enough breadth and depth. For one, they don't assign substances a "chemical abstract service number" that is already documented in a searchable registry. Those numbers allow researchers to thoroughly vet the potential hazards of a specific chemical.
Fuller doesn't dispute the need for regulators to have access to advanced chemical data so they can make sound decisions. But he fears an EPA-generated list of chemicals geared for regulators will be taken out of context by the public.
Disclosure of what this highly competitive industry considers to be intellectual property is also a touchy subject with legal ramifications for companies, he added. Each company claims that the special mix of chemicals it uses to withdraw natural gas is proprietary information.
"Right now, fracturing has drawn an emotional response that allows people to be frightened," Fuller said in an interview. "Most people didn't love their high school chemistry class and most people didn't take chemistry in college."
Though Boling didn't mention any films by name, the Southwestern Energy executive blamed "shockumentaries" for blowing the water contamination issue out of proportion and feeding the public an enormous amount of misinformation.
"There is a growing sense of distrust of the industry, primarily due to backlash from the BP disaster," he said, adding that his industry fuels that fear by being so recalcitrant about unveiling the specific ingredients in fracturing fluids.
"It doesn't help the public, because they have ... a right to the facts," Boling continued. "The biggest disappointment I have is everybody involved in this debate needs to ask, "Can't we do this a little better?'"
Prospects for a Database
All participants at the Heritage forum seemed encouraged by cooperation from two Oklahoma City-based state associations on the disclosure front.
Both the Groundwater Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission are having conversations about how to gather information about fracturing fluids. A spokesperson for the council didn't return a phone call from SolveClimate News for comment.
However, Fuller said it's likely the two groups will follow a two-step plan that will begin with a voluntary disclosure program and evolve into a risk-based data management system.
Those undertakings are not a substitute for mandatory disclosure overseen by federal authorities, Anderson said, but it's a start toward transparency.
"What we need to give the public is one place to go that is user-friendly so they can put the use of these chemicals in context," Anderson said about the ideal database. "We would support whatever gets the action resolved the soonest."
Industry is willing to look for solutions, Fuller responded, but he doubts any of its solutions will ever be fully embraced by the environmental community.
"It's not a simple matter to deal with this issue," Fuller concluded. "This is a war over the future of natural gas in the United States."