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Energy Department panel to endorse shale gas exploration

Workers move a section of well casing into place at a Chesapeake Energy natural gas well site near Burlington, Pa., in Bradford County on April 23, 2010. (Ralph Wilson/AP)

A key Energy Department advisory panel will issue a qualified endorsement of shale gas exploration Thursday, saying that hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” can continue safely as long as companies disclose more about their practices and monitor their environmental impact.

The committee’s report could ease the way for greater domestic gas exploration, even as it calls for new standards to limit harmful air emissions that bring to the surface gas buried deep in shale formations. But the report is largely silent on the most contentious issue surrounding shale gas exploration: who should regulate it, and whether regulators should apply to it laws such as the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Hydraulic fracturing involves pumping massive amounts of fluid — a mixture of water and chemicals — underground, which cracks the shale and drives the gas to the surface. With major deposits in several regions of the country, including the Northeast and the Midwest, firms are tapping into the resource at an unprecedented rate.

Shale gas accounted for less than 2 percent of total U.S. natural-gas production in 2001; it is now close to 30 percent, and the Energy Information Administration projects that it will amount to 45 percent of domestic production by 2035.

As drilling activity has moved closer to residential areas — and as some researchers have found unusually high methane concentrations in nearby drinking water — local activists have called for a stop to further drilling. But industry officials, many politicians and some environmentalists have argued that the country must exploit a domestic energy source that does not release as much carbon dioxide as other fossil fuels when burned.

John Deutch, a chemistry professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who chaired the advisory panel, said in an interview that the group offered “a different approach” to overseeing fracking. “You measure, you disclose what you measure, and you use these measurements to improve the way you operate in the field and reduce your environmental impact,” he said.

Said Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund and another panel member: “If the recommendations are adopted, shale gas resources in the United States will be tapped in a way that avoids some of the environmental problems that have cropped up so far, and minimizes and recognizes others.” He added: “There is now a path for industry to act, and regulators to act, to avert the looming impasse over shale gas development.”

The group’s recommendations will go to Energy Secretary Steven Chu, whose department does not regulate natural-gas production. But its advice, which covers potential actions by regulators and industry, could carry political weight because President Obama asked Chu to establish the advisory group.

On Wednesday, the Environmental Working Group released a letter signed by 28 scientists objecting to the panel, noting that six of its members had connections to industry and that Deutch serves on the board of the natural-gas firm Cheniere Energy and was paid more than $1.4 million by that company and Schlumberger. between 2006 and 2009. Deutch said he fully disclosed his background before Chu selected him.

The panel’s report calls for full disclosure of the chemicals used in fracturing liquids, along with “adoption of rigorous emission standards for both new and existing sources for methane, air toxics, ozone-forming pollutants and other major airborne contaminants,” although it does not specify whether state or federal regulators should impose those rules.

The Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates air and water quality, is conducting its own study of fracking’s effect on the environment and public health. EPA spokeswoman Betsaida Alcantara said that the agency is reviewing the panel’s recommendations and that it will issue an initial report of its findings in 2012.

The advisory panel emphasizes enhanced monitoring of fracking activities, including establishing a baseline for local water quality, studying the extent to which methane could migrate from drilling sites to nearby wells, and public disclosure of air pollution emissions from shale gas operations.

The report also stresses the importance of the industry adopting “best practices,” a technique that offshore oil and gas operators have used for years, to ensure safe shale gas extraction. Shell, for example, issued principles in June aimed at setting a standard that the firms could follow, although it does not disclose all the elements in fracking fluid because suppliers say that doing so would disclose trade secrets.

Although some of the group’s recommendations would go further than rules that states have adopted for fracking — Texas, for instance, requires firms to disclose some but not all chemicals in fracking fluid — several of its proposals fall in line with what state and industry officials are already doing.

Industry experts such as Howard L. Boigon, a partner at the law firm Hogan Lovells who represents the oil and gas industry, said the report covers areas where operators “have either been giving ground or are moving toward.”

The Independent Petroleum Association of America said that “the report stands in stark contrast to the strident, hysterical demands for moratoria on hydraulic fracturing.”

But groups such as Friends of the Earth — which joined 67 other organizations in asking Obama on Monday to impose a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing — questioned why the panel would issue a report when the EPA was in the midst of a multi-year study.

“We’re talking about this 90-day rush to judgment that’s just inappropriate,” said Damon Moglen, who directs climate and energy policy for Friends of the Earth.

Staff writer Steven Mufson contributed to this report.

Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's White House bureau chief, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.

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