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Report: 'Fracking' Risks Need To Be Mitigated

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Alex Cameron, Oklahoma Impact Team

OKLAHOMA CITY -- A federal energy panel wants oil and gas companies to do more to protect the environment, but has stopped short of calling for the sort of oversight that some worry might cripple one of Oklahoma's most important industries.

3/16/2011 Related Story: Oklahoma Oil and Gas Execs Concerned About EPA's 'Fracking' Study

The Department of Energy's Subcommittee on Shale Gas Production was charged with identifying measures that could reduce the environmental impact and improve the safety of hydraulic fracturing.

Hydraulic Fracturing, or "fracking," as it is commonly known, is a process in which a mixture water, sand, and chemicals are injected into a formation, at high pressure, fracturing the rock and allowing natural gas and oil to collect in the well.

It's a procedure that companies like Oklahoma City's Devon Energy and Chesapeake Energy have turned to, almost exclusively, as they've focused production on the nation's increasingly valuable shale formations, like the Marcellus, Barnett, and Woodford.

A dramatic increase, nationwide, in fracking activity in the last decade has brought increased attention to the process and, with it, increased public concern surrounding its potential side effects. The subcommittee's report was intended to address that concern.

The report contains nine overarching recommendations, from improving public information about shale gas operations, to improving air quality, to disclosing the composition of fracturing fluids.

Most of the recommendations are then broken down into more specific measures being advocated by the subcommittee, which was comprised of five industry experts and two environmentalists.

For example, in calling for greater protect of water quality, the group suggests producers "[m]easure and publicly report the composition of water stocks and flow throughout the fracturing and clean-up process," as well as, "[a]dopt best practices in well development and construction, especially casing, cementing and pressure management."

Other recommendations include reducing the use of diesel fuel for surface power, improving communication among state and federal regulators, and better management of the short-term and cumulative impact of hydraulic fracturing on communities and local ecologies.

The report acknowledges that some oil and gas companies are already taking some of these steps, but it makes the case for broader and more formal adoption of best practices, in tandem with more vigilant state and federal oversight.

A spokesman for Devon Energy, contacted following the report's release Thursday, said, generally, the company supports the group's recommendations. He said, Devon is, in fact, already doing many of these things and stands as an industry leader in the development and implementation of best practices.

But, he says, the company does have some concerns with the report. Regarding the committee's desire to see less use of diesel fuel for surface operations, he says drilling rigs that run on natural gas and electricity are possible in some locations, but widespread use is not feasible, since neither gas nor electricity is available everywhere they drill.

The suggestion that the industry track and publicly report the volumes and composition of water at every stage of the production process, he says, is unrealistic, and, he says the cost would be staggering.

Perhaps the biggest industry concern, however, is that the report leaves the door open to increased federal oversight.

Increased oversight, of course, is precisely what the industry's skeptics hope to see.

Industry assurances, the report states, that fracking is already well-regulated and does not pose any significant risk to the air we breathe and the water we drink are no longer sufficient, in the face of growing public worry.

"If implemented," the report concludes, "these measures will give the public reason to believe that the nation's considerable shale gas resources are being developed in a way that is most beneficial to the nation."

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