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U.S. Department of Energy wants to know fracking chemicals

ALLENTOWN, Pa. - A U.S. Department of Energy panel wants energy companies to reveal all the chemicals they use in a drilling technique that has allowed them to reach huge and previously inaccessible deposits of natural gas and paved the way for tens of thousands of new wells but that critics say could poison water supplies.

The panel, convened by Energy Secretary Steven Chu at the request of President Barack Obama, contends there's little risk that the chemicals injected thousands of feet (meters) underground will ever reach shallow drinking water aquifers.

But with increasing public concern about the drilling process, called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, there's no reason why companies can't publicly disclose all the ingredients, the panel said in a report being released Thursday.

"In our judgment, they should disclose the entire suite of chemicals," except in "very rare" instances in which chemicals are judged to be truly proprietary, John Deutch, chairman of the Shale Gas Subcommittee of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board, told The Associated Press.

The panel said there are more pressing concerns associated with intensive shale gas extraction, chief among them air pollution, contamination of drinking water by stray methane and surface spills of chemicals, disruption to communities where intensive gas production is taking place and cumulative negative impacts over decades.

The focus of gas drilling companies has shifted in recent years to the Marcellus Shale, a massive rock formation underlying New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. The recent increase in unconventional gas drilling has helped America become self-sufficient in meeting its demand for natural gas, the panel said, but public opposition has been galvanized by the potential for serious impacts on human health and the environment.

Without a co-ordinated, systematic approach to shale gas development, widespread drilling has the potential to harm public health, the environment and people's quality of life "even when individual operators conduct their activities in ways that meet and exceed regulatory requirements," the report said.

Among its other recommendations, the subcommittee:

  • said that drillers should take immediate additional steps to reduce air emissions and protect groundwater supplies;
  • encouraged the creation of a $20 million online portal to help improve the public's understanding of unconventional gas drilling. The database would collate and link more than 100 existing sources of government data on shale gas, providing a one-stop shop for the public;
  • called for improved regulation and the establishment of an industry group to determine and promote best practices;
  • and cited a need for additional federal funding of basic research.

Deutch, a chemist best known as CIA director under President Bill Clinton, said the economic benefits of shale gas "massively outweigh" the environmental and public health impacts — if those impacts are kept to a manageable level.

"If you do it right, the balance is enormously on the side of production," said Deutch, speaking for himself and not the panel. "If you do it wrong, the public will not accept it and we will lose a potentially great economic opportunity."

Shale gas has rapidly become an important part of U.S. natural gas production, rising from 8 per cent of total output in 2007 to nearly 30 per cent in June of this year, according to the Energy Information Administration, which provides information on energy production. That has resulted in lower home-heating and electric bills for consumers and could reduce the nation's dependence on foreign sources of oil, the committee report said.

To reach the gas, energy companies use horizontal drilling combined with fracking. The technique pumps millions of gallons (litres) of chemically laced water and sand at high pressure down the well bore, breaking up dense shale deposits and releasing the gas molecules.

Many companies already voluntarily report some of the ingredients in their fracking cocktails to a relatively new online registry called FracFocus. But the Department of Energy panel noted that FracFocus excludes many chemicals often used in fracking. It called on regulators to require complete disclosure.

But the panel also said the industry's stock reply that fracking has been performed safely for more than 60 years won't succeed in convincing a skeptical public. Nor does it take into account the recent combination of fracking and horizontal drilling.

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