Oil and natural gas producers and environmental groups routinely have been at odds with each other over the practice of hydraulic fracturing (fracking), but they are now working together to draft a framework for regulation.
"I don't want to say that we yet have a coalition, but we are ready to announce that a coalition is forming. The Environmental Defense Fund [EDF] and Southwestern Energy have been working for a number of months to develop model regulations...And we are able to announce that that has now developed into a broader group effort for multi-stakeholders, both industry and environmental groups. But we're not prepared yet to say who the other participants are," said Scott Anderson, a senior policy adviser with EDF, said on E&ETV's OnPoint.
"Several participants want to keep their names anonymous," said Mark Boling, executive vice president and general counsel for Southwestern Energy.
EDF, an environmental advocacy group, and Houston-based Southwestern Energy are at the forefront of the coalition, which is still in the very beginning stages, said the Houston Chronicle. Both sides have been working on a draft of a regulatory framework for all drilling activities below the ground, including fracking, since January, said Boling said. With this collaborative effort, the two sides are hoping that the controversy over "federal vs. state" regulation of fracking "might melt away," he noted.
Anderson believes that fracking can be carried out in a safe manner, but he says companies are hurting themselves by keeping the fracking fluids a secret. "Some companies are changing their tone" about disclosure of fracking fluids, but "generally companies have not changed their tone and it's very surprising to me that they haven't. I'm very puzzled because they're shooting themselves in the foot, I think, as far as public acceptance is concerned," he said.
The controversy over fracking has been fueled by two factors -- the failure of industry to come forward to tell the public exactly what chemicals are being used in the practice, and the migration of fracking from parts of the country where people are familiar with the practice to areas where it's not familiar, according to Anderson. Fracking involves fluids being injected at high pressure into underground rock formations to fracture the shale rock and increase the flow of natural gas. Environmentalists have protested the practice, saying it results in groundwater contamination.
The framework being developed by the coalition "focuses on well construction and operation. And those people who understand the drilling process generally also understand that hydraulic fracturing is just a subset of the well construction and operation process. More important than the details of how hydraulic fracturing is conducted are things like getting the cement right in the wells, getting the pipe right that's in the wells, managing pressure properly so that if there's unexpected surges in pressure, people respond to it correctly," Anderson said.
"And then the fourth thing that's important is to make sure that wells are located or that fracturing operations take place beneath a cap rock, beneath a layer of rock that's sufficient to keep the fractures from coming up into the drinking water," he noted.
Like the oil and gas industry, both Anderson and Boling support continued state regulation of fracking. "The states actually have a lot of knowledge and experience in regulating well construction and operations. We think that the states have every reason to be able to tackle this issue and do it well," Anderson said.
"We also think that if the states fail in that and the federal government has to take over [fracking regulation], then the states will have no one but themselves to blame," he said.
Anderson sees fracking as critical to maintaining sufficient gas supplies. "Our natural gas supplies would plummet precipitously without hydraulic fracturing. About 90% of the gas wells in the United States are hydraulically fractured and the shale gas that everyone talks about as being a large part of the future of natural gas production, it is absolutely dependent on fracturing," Anderson said.
"We [EDF] do believe that natural gas will be around and has a significant role to play and, therefore, we have to cope with the hydraulic fracturing issues."