Underused Drilling Practices Could Avoid Pollution
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As environmental concerns threaten to derail natural gas drilling projects across the country, the energy industry has developed innovative ways to make it easier to exploit the nation's reserves without polluting air and drinking water.
Energy companies have figured out how to drill wells with fewer toxic chemicals, enclose wastewater so it can't contaminate streams and groundwater, and sharply curb emissions from everything from truck traffic to leaky gas well valves. Some of their techniques also make good business sense because they boost productivity and ultimately save the industry money -- $10,000 per well in some cases.
Yet these environmental safeguards are used only intermittently in the 32 states where natural gas is drilled. The energy industry is exempted from many federal environmental laws, so regulation of this growing industry is left almost entirely to the states, which often recommend, but seldom mandate the use of these techniques. In one Wyoming gas field, for instance, drillers have taken steps to curb emissions, while 100 miles away in the same state, they have not.
The debate over the safety of natural gas drilling has intensified in the past year, even as the nation increasingly turns to cleaner-burning natural gas as an alternative to oil and coal. In Congress, one group of politicians is writing a climate bill that would encourage the use of more natural gas, while another group is pushing a bill that would put a key part of the process under federal regulation and force the disclosure of chemicals used in the drilling process. Neither bill addresses the question of how to encourage energy companies to use existing techniques that lower the risks of environmental damage.
Interviews with state officials and industry executives in states across the country show the industry tends to use these environmental safeguards only when political, regulatory, cost or social pressures force it to do so.
When states have tried to toughen regulations aimed at protecting the environment or institutionalizing these practices, energy companies have fought hard to defend the status quo. They argue that current laws are sufficient, that mandating practices imposes specific solutions on regions where they may not work best, and that the cost of complying with additional laws and safeguards would bankrupt them.
"Sometimes environmental considerations aren't the same as the public considerations, and many times the economic considerations don't fit," said David Burnett, an associate research scientist at Texas A&M University's Global Petroleum Research Institute and a founder of Environmentally Friendly Drilling, a government and industry-funded program that identifies best practices and encourages their use. "There could be better management practices used. We have to find a balance."
Michael Freeman, an attorney at the environmental group Earthjustice, says there is no escaping some damage from drilling. But if the best available precautions were routinely followed, environmental harm could be minimized and the industry may face less resistance from the public as it taps the vast new gas deposits that have been discovered in recent years.
"It would certainly address a lot of people's concerns," Freeman said. "But the government agencies that regulate the oil and gas industry need to be aggressive about making them clean up their act."
Few notions have sparked more hope among environmentalists than the possibility of replacing toxic chemicals used in drilling with what are being called "green" or non-toxic drilling fluids.
A review of scientific documents and interviews with drilling companies and the chemists who supply them shows that the transition is more than theoretical. It's starting to happen.