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Backing “fracking”: U.K. study confirms safety of shale gas production

A new study from the U.K. backs up what industry experts and others have been saying for years: that the hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) process used to produce shale gas and some other types of natural gas does not pose undue risks to the environment. The study was produced by the U.K. Parliament’s House of Commons Energy and Climate Change Committee.

The full report can be read here. But its conclusion was summed up by the committee’s chairman, Tim Yeo MP, who said:

“There has been a lot of hot air recently about the dangers of shale gas drilling, but our inquiry found no evidence to support the main concern – that U.K. water supplies would be put at risk. There appears to be nothing inherently dangerous about the process of ‘fracking’ itself and as long as the integrity of the well is maintained shale gas extraction should be safe.”

Of course, the debate over hydraulic fracturing has been prominent here in the States, too. And there’s no doubt it is critical that consumers and governments alike are re-assured about the safety of the process, because the stakes are high for our nation.

Why? In just the past few years, rising unconventional gas production already has created thousands of well-paying jobs and millions of dollars in revenue for states around the country. At the same time, these new supplies have helped keep domestic gas prices relatively low. On top of that, natural gas burns up to 60 percent cleaner than coal in power generation, so rising gas production is helping meet environmental goals.

The U.K. study was the result of a six-month effort by the committee and included written and oral evidence as well as meetings with a range of organizations in the United Kingdom and the United States, including ExxonMobil, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Sierra Club. Members found that fracking and other steps involved in drilling for shale gas are no more risky than drilling for conventional oil and gas:

“There is no evidence that the hydraulic fracturing process poses any risk to underground water aquifers provided that the well casing is intact before the process commences. Rather, the risks of water contamination are due to issues of well integrity, and are no different to concerns encountered during the extraction of oil and gas from conventional reservoirs. “

We agree that when wells are properly designed and completed – and when detailed procedures are used to manage air quality and to reuse or responsibly dispose of water – natural gas can be produced while protecting water supplies and the environment. In fact, we’re talking about ExxonMobil’s approach to natural gas production in an ad running in major national newspapers this week.

As the U.K. study points out, the technologies and well integrity procedures being used today to produce unconventional gas are not new and have been used by the industry for decades. What is new is the combination of two existing technologies — hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. The study also points out the need for operators to adhere to best practices for safety and operational integrity, just as it does for traditional oil and gas drilling.  We could not agree more. I will discuss these subjects in more depth in the coming weeks.

But for now, I think this study should give confidence to U.S. citizens and lawmakers who want assurance that natural gas can be produced safely and responsibly.

  • Worth a deeper look...