Chasing the runaway anti-fracking train: An industry-led group suggests that shale gas drillers be required to disclose the chemical composition of their drilling fluid, which critics say can contaminate drinking water. This assessment (located half-way through a new report issued by the National Petroleum Council, and led by two big shale-gas drillers -- Anadarko's Jim Hackett and Chesapeake's Aubrey McClendon -- plus Daniel Yergin, the oil historian) isn't surprising in content: The industry has been under enormous pressure to do so, because as it stands these drillers may be jeopardizing the potentially enormous economic and geopolitical benefit of shale gas. There is that much of a perception problem about the drilling method called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
Yet is one fully persuaded by this high-profile attitudinal turnaround? More than half of the 46-page report -- the entire first half -- is a paean to the shale gas bonanza. When it finally gets to the doubts surrounding the industry, it does so by first again praising its environmental performance. Even when it suggests that the Interior Department require all frackers to join Frac Focus, a Web-based chemical registry, the report limits that suggestion to federal lands. As for these federal lands, there too the report writers hedge -- they do not recommend a mandate for full disclosure, meaning all chemical content, but only to "participate" in Frac Focus, a very different thing. In fact, very little about the report suggests an embrace of oversight. And what's wrong with that? I think it will not quell the storm of doubts (consider this latest investigative piece by ProPublica's Abrahm Lustgarten and Nicholas Kusnetz, describing the impact of wastewater stored in open pits near fracking sites). The industry must go demonstrably overboard in its zeal for transparency if it wants not to stunt production.
I talked on the topic of fracking over beers with Peter Robertson, the former vice chairman of Chevron, who was in Washington to present a new report by Deloitte about fracking in North America. Robertson seemed flabbergasted by the magnitude of the shale gas reserves, sufficient, he said, to produce the equivalent of 6 million barrels a day of oil. Yet he was also worried about the public relations problem. For purposes of illustration, Robinson compared the U.S. shale gas industry with Saudi Arabia, where one company produces some 10 million barrels a day of oil from a few hundred wells. Shale gas is produced by some 2,000 companies "from hundreds of thousands of wells," he said. "You're only as good as the weakest link," Robertson said. "We have to win the public over on this one. We are not doing this in some corner, but in towns, villages and cities. They could progressively shut them down."
We have to set high standards, and we have to find a way to police, to self-police, this industry so that we do this right.
On chemical disclosure, Robertson wondered why "we don't just do it."
Why don't we don't just say ‘Of course we're going to tell you' [what is in the fracking fluid]. Because we are, actually. It's almost like we're just fighting it till the end. Because we're going to lose this one.
Steve LeVine is the author of The Oil and the Glory and a longtime foreign correspondent.