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States: Best Practices Key to Any Fracking Plan

State regulators from eight states -- Texas, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Nebraska, Arkansas, Michigan, Colorado and Pennsylvania -- told the U.S. Secretary of Energy Advisory Board Natural Gas Subcommittee (SEAB) that its recommendations on hydraulic fracturing (fracking) should address best practices.

Beyond that there was little agreement at the meeting in Washington, DC, on who should develop those practices, with debate over industry involvement and state versus federal actions. The regulators also discussed the issues of educating the public and keeping tabs on fracking fluids and flowback water. SEAB was formed in April by the Obama administration. The committee has about 74 days to make its recommendations (see Shale Daily, April 4).

Committee Chairman John Deutch asked the state regulators if they thought an industry organization would be most effective in focusing on identifying best practices and helping them get implemented.

"A single organization focused on best practices would help the public gain confidence that there is a process of continuous improvement going on," Deutch said, "with the understanding that there are going to be differences between regions, geologies and priorities among the states."

John Hanger -- a former secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) who now serves as special counsel for Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott LLC -- cautioned against letting industry run a best practices organization.

"For public credibility to be truly affected, the organization would need a diverse government structure," Hanger said. "If it was industry only, I'm afraid the recommendations or activities of the organization would not be accepted by important parts of the public."

Michael Ming, Oklahoma secretary of energy, also struck a cautious note. "I'm a little concerned when I hear 'one organization,'" Ming said, adding that restructuring oil and gas rules at the state level was a rigorous process. "There are a lot of stakeholders involved; it's not a pain-free process. But to blend in something national with that almost overwhelms me."

Ming added that the states "really know what's in their best interests. I'm concerned there is a perception that a fragmented, ineffective regulatory structure is in charge of drilling wells around the country. That's not the case."

The website fracfocus.org, which launched in April, was lauded by state officials as an example of the industry making information available to try and calm the public's fears. But while expressing support for the website, Deutch also voiced some criticism.

"It's a terrific website, but is it sufficient?" Deutch asked. "It's voluntary and a lot of the criteria recorded there is not rigorous. While it's a first step, I guess my view is what is taking so long here? It certainly isn't helping with the public."

Stan Belieu, a petroleum engineer with the Nebraska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said he believes some operators are reluctant to use the website because they don't want to disclose that they are using diesel fuel in their fracking fluids and fear potential enforcement action from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"It's been a good effort," Belieu said, adding that the website now has 44 companies registered and has garnered 3,400 visits from 93 different countries. "It's voluntary, but what the companies are doing is they're helping with the public disclosure."

On the flowback water issue, Stephen Holditch, head of the petroleum engineering department at Texas A&M University, urged states to consider taking samples and analyzing them.

"Some people have alleged that the oil and gas industry pumps in and produces toxic fluids," Holditch said. "Most of us know that's not true. But what's the harm of measuring it, setting up a database and knowing exactly what's coming out of these wells, and then using that information to improve? There may be issues, or there may not. It may be that we collect samples for awhile and find out there's not much there. But I think it's a good idea."

But most states indicated that very little sampling of flowback water was currently being done, because there wasn't much water coming from the wells. Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission Director Larry Bengal said the shale plays under his state were dry with very little brine, and no sampling work was required. Hal Fitch, geological survey director for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality said his state was in the same boat.

"It would probably be a good idea to get some generic sampling of the [flowback water] so that we know at least generically what we're dealing with," Fitch said. "But I really don't see a cause for sampling every flowback."

West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Randy Huffman said there were no surface discharges of flowback water in his state.

"You can never argue with the collection of data for research purposes," Huffman said. "In the regulatory world, that analytical data would be required if there were some kind of treatment and disposal taking place. In our case, we don't have any surface discharge of any frack water. We recycle a large chunk of water and when it gets too contaminated it is put into deep well injection, which requires no analytical [study]."

Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Krancer said there were no surface discharges in his state either.

"We do have several facilities that perform off-site recycling," Krancer said. "They take samples with every truckload that comes in and are generating a database. These are zero discharge facilities, so of course they have a reason to sample the flowback water because they have to gear up their particular treatment processes."

During Thursday's meeting Deutch said he was concerned that state regulators had followed industry officials -- who met with the committee on Wednesday -- in being overly optimistic about the hydraulic fracturing debate.

"There is a significant public concern about a few issues," Deutch said. "To say 'everything is OK,' simply doesn't meet our requirements. There's a big mismatch between the message that's been put in my hand and the general tone that I'm hearing. We're searching for measures that are real and would contribute to improving [the industry].

"Quite frankly, we want to find some real things to do."

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