By Kyle Ferrar, CA Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance
The “Science, Democracy, and Community Decisions on Fracking” forum hosted by The Union of Concerned Scientists focused on the full spectrum of the broad range of issues accompanying unconventional resource extraction and hydraulic fracturing. The meeting included a full day of roundtable discussions focused on three topics, with participants handpicked and assigned to one of three groups. Roundtable discussions with invited participants convened July 24th, with a public forum held the following day. Participants included leading thinkers and experts from academia, industry, nonprofit organizations, and government. The working groups focused on one of three topics:
- The current state of science and technical knowledge
- Public policy and the regulatory framework for managing development
- Public Access to data and resources.
The FracTracker Alliance participated in the public access discussions. The chair(s) of each of the three committees presented their findings during the public forum on July 25th, followed by “dynamic public discussion.”
The public forum began with opening remarks from Kathleen Rest, Executive Director of UCS, and Edward A. Parson, Professor of law and Co-Director of the Emmet Center on Climate Change and the Environment at the UCLA Law School, and a warm greeting from U.S. Congressman Henry A Waxman, via telecast as Congress is currently in session. Opening remarks by Adrienne Alvord (UCS) introduced the three committees and their respective charges. A short video, filmed and produced by UCS, presenting the need for public awareness on the issue of hydraulic fracturing and unconventional resource development was then exhibited. The video can be found on the UCS website.
The committee discussing the current state of science and knowledge gaps was chaired by Kevin Hurst, former Assistant Director of energy R&D for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. In his presentation Kevin acknowledged the various risks of media contamination, including groundwater, soil, surface water, and air, that have occurred during both conventional and unconventional oil and gas extraction, but felt that his committee had reached an overall consensus within his group that when best practices are employed responsibly, these risks can be managed effectively. Specifically, the risks to groundwater and green-house gas emissions are relatively similar to the risks associated with conventional resource development (vertically drilled oil and natural gas wells that are not “frac’ed”). The risk management issues result from the scale of development. Proper management will necessarily require comprehensive monitoring plans, including all media as well as wildlife and public health, necessarily from industry but also from the public sector and citizens. Monitoring will need to be consistent, transparent, and widespread. For each particular failure that has been realized, there will need to be a collaboration between industry and regulatory bodies (state and federal) to drive down risk. For data collection on a comprehensive scale there will also need to be collaboration between public and private institutions for a coalition that supports public engagement.
Kate Konschnik, Policy Director of the Environmental Law and Policy program at the Harvard Law School and former chief environmental counsel to U.S. senator Sheldon Whitehouse, presented on behalf of the policy working group. Kate began by addressing what is working and what is not working in terms of the goals of the many interest groups focused on hydraulic fracturing issues. Among other interests they include moratoriums and a complete ban. In the case of local rural interests groundwater protection has been a main focus, whereas in urban communities it is typically a concern for air quality. On a global scale green-house gas emissions are the focus. On all levels these are progressive issues due to the difference of scale as compared to previous oil and gas activity in most parts of the United States. To manage this scale of development there are both regulatory and non-regulatory tools. Regulatory tools include roles for the federal, state, tribal, and local governments such as the role the EPA has in supporting green completions of well-heads, although they could be required as addressed in the clean air act. Non-regulatory bodies possess other tools such as shareholder interests and actions and third party certifications such as LEED certifications. In regards to regulatory action, there seems to be a lack of will to apply existing rules on the books, whereas there is also the capacity for new rules that need to be created in such a way that authority is shared without duplicating efforts and with clear response plans. Having government regulatory agencies lead the charge in data collection is important to inspire innovation to reduce risks, develop performance standards from the ground level and will address the trust issue for accountability and continued improvement of technologies. Information that needs to be collected includes baseline data and ongoing monitoring in a consistent format across multiple states, as well as chemical disclosures.
The third working group, focused on issues of public access to information, was chaired by Tom Wilbur, author of Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale and Shale Gas Review blog. Tom’s presentation centered on the question, “What can be done to help citizens seek, find, and digest information, while recognizing misinformation, so as to inform decision-making?” Answers should improve access to information that will in turn inform decision-making. The main findings were framed in terms of the best outcome for most people, such that public health and environmental health issues trump issues of trade secrets and non-disclosures. The first finding was that the sources of information need to be trusted, and community generated information is the most trusted. This includes the involvement of regulatory agencies, such as closing the loopholes in the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 (hazardous wastes) and the Clean Water Act. Disclosure of all chemicals is therefore also necessary. The full process of data dissemination must also be considered, from translation of data to information, to synthesis of results and conclusions, and then explanations of the implications. Validation of all information by trusted sources is critical.
Additional presenters who had not participated in the roundtable discussions provided insight into the various themes, to tie the discussions together. Amy Jaffy Myers, Executive Director for energy and sustainability at the University of California-Davis, discussed global energy security economic, and geopolitics of frac’ing. Amy explained why the issue of energy independence is so important to the future of the United States. Everyone wants the freedom of mobility to drive cars on liquid fuel and warmth to heat their homes. In turn, the public’s demand for responsible policies should be responded with a commitment from the private sector. Felicia Marcus, Chair of the California State Water Resources Control Board provided the context for why the issue is so important in the State of California, and summarized the current set of draft rules and regulations that are currently being considered by the state legislature. They include provisions for monitoring, transparency, and bonding. Jose Bravo, executive director of the Just Transition Alliance, gave a moving talk about the environmental justice issues that have accompanied oil and natural gas development in California communities. Todd Platts, former U.S. Representative, gave a lecture on the need for information for community-empowerment as well as the need for transparency in a functioning democracy, and Andrew Rosenberg, Director of the Center for Science and Democracy and The Union of Concerned Scientist provided closing remarks, which summed up the entire conference with the words “Informed decisions need to be made on the merits.”