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Shale hydrofracking in Pennsylvania

Federal Committee: Shale Gas Needs More Openness, Better Data

Dick writes about Earth and planetary science for Science magazine.

A U.S. Department of Energy committee has waded into the fracas over the production of natural gas from shale using the controversial hydrofracturing, or fracking, technology, with a call for shared data. Much about how industry produces shale gas must be improved, a report released today finds, in order to reduce shale gas's environmental impact. "We share the belief that development can be done in a way that results in minimal impacts," says geophysicist Mark Zoback of Stanford University, one of seven members of the subcommittee advising Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. But "to do that, there have to be improvements in the way shale gas companies do their business."

The subcommittee to the secretary's Energy Advisory Board was not asked who should be regulating shale gas, Zoback says. Regulation now lies primarily with the states. But "we're pointing out what can and should be done." To regain public trust, the report says, much information about shale gas should become readily available to the public, starting with the chemical recipes for the fluids pumped at high pressure into shale to free up the gas. Those fluids sometimes spill onto the surface and into waterways. And much more information should be gathered on the environment before, during, and after drilling. The debate over whether and how drilling and fracking contaminate groundwater with gas—the infamous flaming water faucet of the documentary Gasland—would benefit especially. "We feel very strongly that having good data will advance a lot of the issues," Zoback says.

Some sort of national organization focused on shale gas should also be formed, the report says. It could create a national database of all public information as well as disseminate best practices to industry as they evolve. Added support for existing mechanisms that aid communication among state and federal regulators would also help.

"It's a remarkable report," says Philip Sharp, president of the think tank Resources for the Future in Washington, D.C. "It's a balanced, high-caliber group with public input. The report is remarkable in having honest, actionable proposals in it. What they say will get attention."

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