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Executive Summary

Unconventional gas drilling is emerging as one of the most controversial energy & environmental issues in the United States and around the world today.

Advancements in extraction technologies, particularly horizontal drilling and high volume hydraulic fracturing (fracking), have enabled drillers to reach previously inaccessible gas in geological formations underlying several areas of the U.S.

Increasing public awareness of the threats posed by America’s dependence on foreign oil and dirty coal to public health and the global climate have led many – including some environmental organizations and progressive politicians – to embrace gas as a “bridge fuel” to help America kick its dirty energy addiction.

But recent revelations about the dangers that unconventional gas drilling poses to drinking water supplies, public health and the global climate are raising important questions about how “clean” this gas really is.

Scientists studying the impacts of unconventional gas drilling warn that gas is likely to have a greater influence on water, air and climate than previously understood. Major scientific bodies have cautioned against a national commitment to gas as a bridge fuel, citing the need for further research into the potential consequences of continued reliance on this fossil fuel.

A growing number of land owners, former gas industry executives and elected officials are also challenging the notion that gas is as clean as its proponents argue, and questioning whether unconventional gas drilling can be done without threatening drinking water supplies, air quality and the global climate.

Yet the gas industry continues to benefit from lax oversight and several exemptions from existing public health protections, such as the Safe Drinking Water Act and parts of the Clean Water Act that apply to other fossil fuel extraction industries. Recent attempts by federal agencies and lawmakers to improve oversight of gas operations have been met with strong resistance from the gas industry and its alliance of front groups and defenders in the media.

The gas industry’s influence in Washington has grown tremendously thanks, in large part, to the rapid consolidation of the gas industry into the hands of the largest oil companies in the past few years. Not long ago, the industry was made up primarily of what its proponents call “mom and pop” companies—small operators that drilled chiefly for conventional gas.

But with recoverable deposits of that relatively ‘easy’ conventional gas dwindling in the Lower 48, larger drillers have turned their focus to the more difficult and expensive unconventional gas plays.

Oil giants such as BP, ExxonMobil, Shell and Chevron now dominate the gas industry. The industry’s chief front group, Energy In Depth (EID), goes to great lengths to maintain the “mom and pop” image of the industry, claiming it represents small and independent gas producers.

However, its own documents prove that its early funding – and ongoing financial support – comes from many of the largest oil and gas interests.

EID and other gas lobby groups argue that federal oversight and increased scrutiny and accountability measures would harm the industry’s development and risk jobs. But big oil companies have made that same “economy-killing” argument for decades – a strategy they learned from tobacco companies and the chemical industry – while amassing record profits and enjoying spectacular growth.

Through intensive lobbying, campaign contributions and other forms of influence, these oil and gas companies have successfully thwarted efforts to hold the gas industry accountable for its impacts on health and the environment.

Now the same companies that brought us the Exxon Valdez spill, the BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, Chevron’s destruction of the Amazonian rainforest in Ecuador and countless other pollution examples, want the public to blindly trust them - with zero federal oversight - as they pursue drilling for much riskier unconventional gas throughout the country.

The question is, given the oil industry’s track record of environmental and health disasters, can the public trust them to get it right with the more challenging unconventional gas?

This report is designed to shed light on the rapidly changing composition of the gas industry and to raise important questions about whether the rush to exploit unconventional gas may be coming at too high a cost to the environment.

While coal and oil certainly pose their own significant challenges to health and climate, it is important to recognize that unconventional gas is also a dirty fossil fuel and does not belong in any credible definition of “clean energy.”

Given the extensive uncertainties surrounding the impacts potentially connected to the unconventional gas industry’s current drilling practices, it is only prudent at this point to insist on a pause for further evaluation. In fact, as a direct result of the recent Chesapeake gas well blowout in Pennsylvania that spilled drilling chemicals onto nearby properties and waterways, a former gas company executive called for a moratorium on all fracking operations near waterways in Arkansas’s Fayetteville shale region, stating that:

“There is no reason on Earth, if they are going to close it down there, they shouldn't close it down here.”

It is becoming increasingly clear that the unconventional gas boom is happening too fast, too recklessly and with insufficient concern for the potential cumulative impacts on our most critical resources – clean air, safe drinking water and a stable climate.

DeSmogBlog joins those who are calling for a nationwide moratorium on hydraulic fracturing and other troublesome practices in the unconventional gas industry. Until independent scientists and experts conduct further studies, the public simply cannot trust the fossil fuel industry to continue with this dirty energy boom.

See the conclusion for DeSmogBlog’s recommendations to policymakers.