Panel Findings Prove Fractious

The Energy Department’s Subcommittee on Shale Gas released its final report on fracking today, recommending that the gas-drilling practice be permitted to continue with added regulations. If the industry fails to embrace those rules, hydraulic fracturing could pose serious damage, the report said.

The panel recommended that fracking companies be required to submit to several best practices: monitoring air pollution and greenhouse gasses generated at drilling sites, tracking waste, and revealing the contents of the cocktail of chemicals shot into the ground to dislodge shale gas from rock fissures.

Don’t confuse this panel with EPA’s fracking study, which is a more rigorous empirical examination of the practice. Its results are set to come out beginning at the close of 2012.

Environmental groups and several scientists were outraged at the results, arguing that the panel was biased heavily toward industry and that the panel should have recommended banning fracking outright.

I think that might be going a bit too far. Though a climate of non-compromise has taken hold in Washington of late (don’t even get me started on the debt ceiling), the panel did a remarkably effective job of taking a moderate, nuanced position.

Fracking companies have been fighting against any regulation of the drilling process whatsoever, arguing that the practice is safe and carries no more risk than, say, coal mining. But the mining industry is indeed regulated, and this committee’s recommendations certainly are not burdensome. Cities and states regulate anything that generates air pollution, even down to level of individual cars (ever get your emissions checked? Yep, that's the government regulating your air pollution output). They do this because air pollution is preventable and directly linked to all kinds of health problems. And, as I’ve argued before, disclosing fracking fluids can only be a good thing. More information helps everyone – federal and local governments, residents who live near fracking sites, drilling companies – make better decisions. By the same token, monitoring these fluids and other wastes in no way affects the drilling processes – so what’s the harm in monitoring them, drilling companies?

This need for information runs both ways, though. It’s disingenuous to argue that fracking should be banned without conclusive evidence that it is harmful. Fracking may not be the most environmentally healthful process ever invented, but that’s not a justification to ban it outright.

In an ideal world, fracking would be unnecessary. But this isn’t an ideal world; it’s one with problems, and problems are messy. You can’t throw an ideal – no petroleum products – at a problem and expect it to disappear. Ideals are goals; they’re not a plans for action.

So while the goal is to end fracking and improve technology enough that we can rely on solar, biofuels and the like, the reality right now is that we need natural gas. The report provides a good next step that will more safely provide us with fuel for now, while we research fuel for the future.

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Posted by Laura Williams on Aug 11, 2011