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Scientific and regulatory challenges to 'hydrofracking' increase - International Law Office

International Law Office

Environment & Climate Change - USA

Scientific and regulatory challenges to 'hydrofracking' increase

May 09 2011

While the use of hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas from shale has generated substantial concerns about the impact on water quality and conventional air pollution, such opposition has rarely focused on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Instead, it has been widely assumed, including by some environmental organisations, that natural gas is the least harmful 'bridge fuel' to reduce GHG emissions during a transition from coal to alternative energy sources. This core assumption has now been called into question following the release of a new study finding that total GHGs from natural gas extracted through hydraulic fracturing (known as 'shale gas') may match or exceed those from coal. However, the validity of these conclusions is already the subject of intense debate.

The study, published by three Cornell University researchers, reported that the primary GHG emission from hydraulic fracturing is not carbon dioxide from the burning of natural gas, but methane released during the fracturing process, the operation of the wells and the transportation and storage of the fuel. Because methane is a far more potent GHG than carbon dioxide, the study concluded that over a 20-year timeframe, "the GHG footprint for shale gas is at least 20% greater than and perhaps more than twice as great as that for coal". Carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for longer than methane, but the study found that even over a 100-year period, shale gas emissions were comparable to coal emissions. The study's data and methodology have already been disputed by the oil and gas industry, principally because the assumed rate of fugitive emissions is at odds with industry standards and practices. The report's authors acknowledge that better data is needed on the amount of methane emissions that leak or are otherwise lost during and after hydraulic fracturing operations, which is now likely to become a focus of increased attention.

Additional obstacles for fracturing proponents surfaced during a Senate Environment and Public Works Committee hearing on April 12 2011, as an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) official affirmed that drilling companies that use diesel fuel in hydraulic fracturing operations without a permit are in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act. A 2010 report revealed inconsistent positions among state environmental regulators concerning the use of diesel as a fracturing fluid, and in 2011 the EPA posted a statement on its website that: "Any service company that performs hydraulic fracturing using diesel fuel must receive prior authorization." The Independent Petroleum Association of America and the US Oil & Gas Association are challenging that posting in the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, alleging that the EPA imposed new substantive requirements without undertaking the rulemaking procedures required by the Administrative Procedures Act. The EPA is in the process of developing new permitting guidance for companies that use diesel fuel in fracturing operations.

Also on April 12 2011, in New York, a bill that would have required the disclosure of hydraulic fracturing chemicals was rejected in the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee. The legislation, S425, drew support from a majority of committee members voting, but fell one vote short of the eight required to bring it to the Senate floor. Fracturing disclosure legislation is also pending in the US Congress. While such disclosure is not currently required nationwide, a new website from the Ground Water Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, funded in part by the Department of Energy, has collected chemical data voluntarily submitted by participating oil and gas companies and published it in a searchable database.

For further information on this topic please contact Daniel Riesel or Jonathan Kalmuss-Katz at Sive Paget & Riesel PC by telephone (+1 212 421 2150), fax (+1 212 421 2035) or email (driesel@sprlaw.com or jkkatz@sprlaw.com).

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