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Environment Committee Explores Topics of Fracking, Cost-Saving Solutions

By Jubi Headley
January 30, 2012


Members of the Conference's Environment Committee, chaired by Hallandale Beach, FL Mayor Joy Cooper, heard presentations on one of the most discussed — and contentious — environmental topics of the day: natural gas extraction, more commonly referred to as hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking- as well as cost'saving solutions for water utilities during the 80th Winter Meeting.

Hydraulic fracturing is essentially the propagation of fractures in a rock layer by introduction of a pressurized fluid, in order to extract natural gas. (Hydraulic fracturing is also used to release petroleum, coal seam gas, and other substances from rock layers.) During the meeting, both speakers offered a similar perspective: despite valid environmental and public health concerns, hydraulic fracturing provides a substantial net economic and energy benefit for the United States. (The Conference of Mayors does not have a policy on hydraulic fracturing.)

Sussman: EPA Sees Fracking as Economic and Energy Benefit

Robert Sussman, Senior Policy Counsel to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson, affirmed the position of the EPA and the Obama Administration, that natural gas extraction can yield significant potential economic and energy benefits. According to Sussman, those benefits include:

  • An increase in the nation's natural gas supply;

  • Lower natural gas prices for consumers;

  • Reduced American reliance on imported sources of energy;

  • Job creation in the United States; and

  • Overall potential pollution reduction, and in particular reductions of greenhouse gases.

Sussman acknowledged that there are a number of concerns about the potential environmental/health impacts of hydraulic fracturing, including possible stresses on groundwater supply, potential contamination from faulty well construction, compromised water quality, and potential emission of hazardous air pollutants. Sussman said that EPA understands that it must pay close attention to these environmental concerns, and make an effort to address and manage these issues, in order to increase public confidence in hydraulic fracturing. From the EPA's perspective, improving public understanding of, and gaining public confidence in, natural gas extraction as a sustainable endeavor is one of the top priorities for the EPA on this issue.

Yet while Sussman affirmed that the EPA wants to be very proactive in addressing the environmental and health concerns, he also cautioned against overstating or over-amplifying these concerns. Sussman maintained that in spite of these concerns hydraulic fracturing can produce natural gas in an environmentally sustainable way.

Robinson: Fracking, Regulation Isn't New to Industry

Peter Robinson, Senior Vice President of Legislative and Regulatory Affairs for America's Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA), said that hydraulic fracturing isn't new — the industry been using it successfully for years — what's new is combining hydraulic fracturing with directional drilling. This is the part of the process that gives rise to potential environmental and public health concerns.

Robinson noted that during the hydraulic fracturing process the drilling "tunnel" is typically encased in multiple layers of steel and cement, in order to ensure that ‘no contaminants reach groundwater or drinking water supplies. Robinson also noted that:

  • The surface disturbance created by hydraulic fracturing is smaller than for almost any other energy source;

  • While a significant amount of water is used in the process of natural gas extraction, it's still less than almost every other energy creation process except for wind energy.

  • There's no reliable evidence that the process of natural gas extraction causes seismic activity; and

  • Natural gas production is a highly regulated process — each of the 50 states has its own set of regulations, above and beyond those established by the federal government.

Robinson noted that for many environmentalists one of the most significant issues is the actual content of the pressurized fluid used in the hydraulic fracturing process. To address these concerns, many companies are disclosing the content of the fluid they use, on a well by well basis, on a new website, FracFocus (www.fracfocus.org). FracFocus provides public access to reported chemicals used for hydraulic fracturing within their area. Robinson also said that there's a great deal of research and development to discover more environmentally benign fluids.

Culver City (CA) Mayor Michael O-Leary posed an intriguing question: could the water used for hydraulic fracturing contain a unique chemical marker so that it could easily be identified? Then, O-Leary explained, it could be easily ruled out as a source of groundwater or drinking water contamination and put to rest many of the environmental concerns being discussed. While both Sussman and Robinson were noncommittal about the idea, both acknowledged that the idea certainly merited further exploration.

Veolia Water North America — Partnership with New York City

David Gadis, Executive Vice President of Veolia Water, spoke about their new partnership with New York City. In November 2011, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) launched a new program, Operational Excellence to help make DEP the safest, most effective, cost-efficient, and transparent water utility in the nation. Veolia has been hired as a consultant to develop recommendations to streamline workflows, boost productivity, identify opportunities for efficiency gains, and keep future water rate increases as low as possible. As the nation's largest municipal water and wastewater utility, DEP currently spends roughly $1.2 billion annually on operations and maintenance and aims to achieve $100 to $200 million in annual savings through the program. Gadis noted that Veolia has an incentive-based, ‘pay for performance- agreement with NYC DEP, and encouraged mayors to consider engaging Veolia in discussions about similar agreements for their city.