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Panel Seeks Stiffer Rules for Drilling of Gas Wells

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A version of this article appeared in print on August 11, 2011, on page A13 of the New York edition

A federal Department of Energy panel issued recommendations on Thursday for improving the safety and environmental impact of drilling in shale formations for natural gas.

In a report on the drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that is used currently in most oil and gas wells, the seven-member Natural Gas Subcommittee called for better tracking and more careful disposal of the waste that comes up from wells, stricter standards on air pollution and greenhouse gases associated with drilling, and the creation of a federal database so the public can better monitor drilling operations.

The report also called for companies to eliminate diesel fuel from their fracking fluid because it includes carcinogenic chemicals, and for companies and regulators to disclose the full list of ingredients used in fracking.

“The public deserves assurance that the full economic, environmental and energy security benefits of shale gas development will be realized without sacrificing public health, environmental protection and safety,” said the report, which was prepared by a subcommittee led by John Deutch, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and a group of energy experts including Daniel Yergin, chairman of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates, and Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund.

Federal officials should finance the development of more efficient and clean drilling techniques, the report said, adding that fees and taxes on industry were a legitimate way to pay for needed changes in oversight.

The report called for the use of a “manifest system” for tracking waste from the wells. Such a system typically requires that each load of waste is tracked as it is transported from handler to handler, from the well to its disposal, to verify that it is not dumped at the side of the road.

Tracking and handling the drilling waste have been especially problematic in Pennsylvania. Drilling is intense in the state, but there is also a shortage of injection wells for disposal of the wells’ contaminated wastewater and sludge. State regulators considered instituting a manifest system in 2009, but opted against it after the industry staunchly opposed the proposal.

“We’re issuing a call for industry action,” Mr. Deutch said, “but we are not leaving it to industry alone.”

After The New York Times published a series of articles and internal Environmental Protection Agency documents revealing legal and environmental concerns among the agency’s enforcement lawyers about natural gas drilling, President Obama asked Steven Chu, the energy secretary, in May to produce an advisory report within 90 days on ways to improve the oversight of natural gas drilling.

However, the committee has been criticized by all sides since its creation. In three separate letters, 57 New York lawmakers, 28 scientists, and representatives from more than 100 environmental groups cited concerns about the industry ties held by six members of the seven-person panel, including Mr. Deutch, who sits on the board of Cheniere Energy, a company that has plans to export liquefied natural gas.

When the president announced the committee, Republican lawmakers including Representative Fred Upton of Michigan, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, called the study redundant, pointing to research already under way by the E.P.A.

Some E.P.A. officials have also complained about the committee, which they said seemed to pre-empt and undermine the E.P.A.’s own more rigorous national study on fracking and drinking water. The agency’s preliminary findings are expected next year.

The Obama administration has strongly supported expanding drilling for natural gas because it is an abundant domestic and potentially cleaner source of electricity than coal.

However, scrutiny of the industry and questions about what improvements in oversight are needed to proceed safely with this drilling have grown. The Securities and Exchange Commission recently subpoenaed several oil and gas companies about whether they accurately present to investors drilling costs and long-term well performance. The General Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, was recently assigned to research similar and other questions related to drilling.

Since problems were highlighted, most drilling companies in Pennsylvania have stopped sending their wastewater through treatment plants that were unable to remove many of the contaminants before the water was discharged into rivers. State regulators and drinking water operators are also now testing more regularly for radioactive and other toxic elements in the drilling wastewater.

Federal lawmakers have asked the Energy Information Administration, an arm of the Department of Energy, to answer questions about its natural gas projections and produce documents related to a shale gas Web site that included substantial discussion of the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing.

Internal agency e-mails published last month in The Times show disagreement about whether the Web site was too critical of the industry, though administration officials have since said logistical concerns were the reason the Web site has not gone online. Those e-mails also feature other Energy Department officials citing their agency’s main shale gas primer as too “rosy” and encouraging a reporter to look to external publications for additional information.

Thursday’s report, however, takes a more nuanced view. It cites the promise of shale gas as having “enormous potential to provide economic and environmental benefits for the county” while also highlighting a broader range of risks that need to be addressed.

The report called for further study to settle disagreements in the research about whether natural gas — when its extraction, transportation, storage and use by consumers are taken into account — is actually less harmful to the environment than coal or other fuel sources. It also described contamination of drinking water from fracking chemicals as improbable but refers to the risk of gas migrating into aquifers as a greater source of concern needing further study.

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