International Agency Calls for Action on Natural Gas Safety

New environmental controls on natural gas "fracking" are both needed and affordable, the International Energy Agency says.

Forcing natural gas out of shale rock through hydraulic fracturing is riskier than conventional gas development and requires tougher rules than those now in place, the International Energy Agency (IEA) says in a new report.

The IEA says such measures are entirely feasible, adding at most 7 percent to the costs of drilling. And the agency says they are necessary.

"There is a very real possibility that public opposition to drilling for shale gas and other types of unconventional gas will halt the unconventional gas revolution in its tracks," said IEA Executive Director Maria van der Hoeven in a statement. "The industry must win public confidence by demonstrating exemplary performance."

Among the standards IEA advocates: Full, mandatory disclosure of "fracking" chemicals, "robust rules" on well construction and design to prevent groundwater pollution, and an aim for zero venting and minimal flaring of methane. Methane, the major component of natural gas, is a potent greenhouse gas.

To prepare the report, the Paris-based agency obtained input from more than 50 industry experts, environmental groups and government agencies around the world.

"Golden" Rules

Last year, the IEA declared the advance of a "golden age of gas," and the agency in its new report expands on its projection that natural gas is on track to overtake coal as the world's number two fuel (second only to oil).

In that "golden age" scenario, the IEA said, production of unconventional gas, mainly shale gas, would more than triple by 2035, and the United States would move ahead of Russia as the largest global producer of natural gas. Shale gas technology was developed in the United States, and that is where most activity is taking place, but deposits are found all over the world. China, with large reserves, would be the next most important producer in IEA's scenario. The IEA also foresees large unconventional natural gas production in Australia, India, Canada, Indonesia, and Poland.

The IEA, which was established after the 1973 Arab oil embargo to focus on issues of energy security, views the development as beneficial, improving and expanding the world's energy choices. But the agency stresses that the industry must do more to gain public acceptance.

Even though the process of hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," has been used in the industry for decades, the volumes of water used and the potential impact are much greater in the process as it has been modified over the past decade to force gas from shale rock.

"Unconventional developments occur at a scale that inevitably increases the risk of incidents occurring," the IEA said. "Producing unconventional gas is an intensive industrial process, generally imposing a larger environmental footprint than conventional gas development. More wells are often needed and techniques such as hydraulic fracturing are usually required to boost the flow of gas from the well."

"The scale of development can have major implications for local communities, land use and water resources," the report said. "Serious hazards, including the potential for air pollution and for contamination of surface and groundwater, must be successfully addressed."

(See interactive: "Breaking Fuel From the Rock")

Already, in response to concerns that have been raised in Pennsylvania, Wyoming, and other shale-drilling hot spots, moratoriums have been enacted by the state of New York, part of Delaware, and the province of Quebec. France and Belgium have banned fracking.

Best Practices

The report's golden rules encourage transparency and call for more environmental measurement and monitoring, as well as more engagement with citizens to build trust and earn a "social license to operate," as the report puts it.

One of the main concerns with fracking has been contamination of water supplies—both groundwater and rivers. Methane has shown up in water supplies, sometimes enough to make tap water flammable, and studies have linked the phenomenon to nearby shale gas development and faulty well construction.

To prevent such problems, the IEA recommends strong regulations to ensure "complete isolation" of wells from groundwater, with "multiple measures in place to prevent leaks." Baseline measurements of water quality should be made before a natural gas operation is started, the report suggests, and monitoring should continue after operations have begun.

The IEA's "golden rules" also addressed the issue of "flowback," wastewater that returns to the surface after fracking.The wastewater that is brought to the  surface is a bigger risk to water supplies than leaky wells, the IEA report argued. "It should be feasible to reuse and recycle significant volumes of the flow-back water."

Some natural gas companies are reusing and recycling the wastewater, but there is no consistent practice or regulation in the United States.

A Chilling Effect?

The IEA's recommendations echo others issued recently. Earlier this month, the National Resources Defense Council, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit, recommended actions that shale gas companies should take because "federal and state regulations have not kept up with the dramatic growth in the practice and must be significantly strengthened."

Also this month, a trio of socially active investment groups—Boston Common Asset Management, the Investor Environmental Health Network (IEHN), and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility—representing nearly $1 trillion in assets, came together to back a list of recommendations similar to those made by the IEA.

"Regulators are frequently playing catch-up," argued Richard Liroff, director of IEHN and lead author of the investment groups' report, "Extracting the Facts."

"The best practices are often way beyond what regulations require," he added. Their report, like the IEA's, encourages shale gas operators to be more transparent, and to engage with communities.

However, Raymond Orbach, director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin, which has studied fracking and its environmental impact, argues that many of the IEA report's recommendations are covered by regulations in the United States."It gives a sense that things are out of control, which is not the case, I think," he added. "It sounds heavily weighted toward a very strong oversight that could in some cases really have a chilling effect on hydraulic fracturing."

The IEA, though, argues that industry needs "to go beyond minimally satisfying legal requirements," and should be sensitive to communities' concerns.

Need "a more substantial shift"

Besides water contamination, another concern about fracking is leakage of natural gas into the atmosphere. The gas is mostly methane, a greenhouse gas at least 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide (CO2). The IEA calls for public authorities to consider imposing restrictions on venting and flaring of methane, with specific requirements for installing equipment to capture emissions. The agency also called for better measures of the extent of leaking and the values that should be used when assessing the global warming potential of emissions from these operations.

But even if leakage is curbed, the IEA report stresses that boosting use of natural gas instead of coal is not a complete solution to the world's climate-change problem.

(Related: "Natural Gas a Weak Weapon Against Climate Change, New Study Asserts" and "Shale Gas: A Boon That Could Stunt Alternatives, Study Says")

Even in the IEA's scenario where natural gas fracking triples by 2035, greenhouse gas emissions would be just 1.3 percent lower than in a scenario with limited expansion of fracking and natural gas development.

"Greater reliance on natural gas alone cannot realize the international goal of limiting the long-term increase in the global mean temperature to two degrees Celsius [3.6°F] above pre-industrial levels," the report concluded. "Achieving this climate target will require a much more substantial shift in global energy use."

The IEA's report undercuts both some of the most positive and most negative assessments of the shale gas boom, says Armond Cohen, executive director of the U.S.-based environmental group, the Clean Air Task Force. The new supply has been called "one of the world's best weapons in the fight against climate change, or an unprecedented environmental menace that will inevitably destroy drinking water supplies and pollute local air quality," Cohen said in a statement. The IEA report "suggests that both assertions are greatly exaggerated."

(Related Quiz: What You Don't Know About Natural Gas)

He said the report spells out how local and global air and water impacts of new natural gas development can be minimized at low cost. But at the same time, without technology to capture and store carbon, and other zero-carbon strategies, "Expanded gas supplies alone . . . will make little difference to world CO2 emissions," he said.

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

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