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A shift in the gas debate?

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Cally Carswell | Aug 24, 2011 05:00 AM

When, at the direction of President Obama, the Department of Energy appointed a panel to come up with recommendations to improve the safety of natural gas development, environmentalists didn't expect much. Watchdog groups worried the panel was weighted to favor industry. The nonprofit Environmental Working Group called for its chair, John Deutch, to step down because he sits on the board of a liquefied natural gas company. In July, environmental and citizens' groups from 13 states sent Energy Secretary Steven Chu a letter asking for Deutch's removal and for the appointment of representatives from communities affected by gas drilling to balance out other panelists with industry ties. A month later, a group of scientists logged similar complaints. 

So the panel's first report, released earlier this month, took them a bit by surprise. While it was generally supportive of increased domestic gas production, and concluded that the threat fracking poses to groundwater supplies was minute, it also came "down squarely on the side of stronger oversight," as reporter Nicholas Kusnetz of ProPublica's ace fracking team put it. The report advocates stricter air pollution controls, groundwater monitoring, and more transparency about the chemicals used in fracking. And as Greenwire reports, it "rejected some longstanding industry talking points -- that hydraulic fracturing of shale formations is a time-tested technology, that drilling is a highly regulated industry and that drilling companies are doing everything they can to protect human health and the environment."

"I was happy with the recommendation on disclosure, and the recommendations on water and air monitoring," says Gwen Lachelt, director of the Oil and Gas Accountability Project. "These are areas that have been just completely ignored, and pose a huge threat to public health and safety."

Of course, environmentalists aren't entirely happy with the report, and neither is industry. The American Petroleum Institute has complained that industry didn't have enough direct representation on the panel, and taken exception to the report's conclusion that existing state regulation is inadequate. Other statements from industry groups, however, have been vaguely supportive of the panel's findings. The Marcellus Shale Coalition, for instance, stated in a press release that: "these fact-based recommendations represent yet another key step toward ensuring that common sense policies must be in place to ensure that American natural gas development continues to be balanced with the proper environmental safeguards."

Environmentalists, for their part, were disappointed that the panel didn't call for an end to the industry's exemption from federal laws like the Safe Drinking Water Act. Whether the report will otherwise influence regulatory reform remains to be seen. But Lachelt says its political significance is real. "It’s really the first time in my experience working on this issue that the President has taken onshore oil and gas impacts so seriously, and has directed his secretary to develop a plan for making this development safer," she says. "In my mind, it can carry a lot of weight."

Cally Carswell is HCN's assistant editor.

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