Oklahoma officials take part in natural gas discussion with federal panel


Oklahoma was well represented this week at public hearings before a U.S. Department of Energy panel looking for ways to improve shale gas development.

Chesapeake Energy Corp. CEO Aubrey McClendon and Devon Energy Corp. executive Bill Whitsitt were part of Wednesday's industry panel to address the seven-member natural gas subcommittee.

Oklahoma Energy Secretary Mike Ming was on Thursday's panel of state regulators. He was supposed to be joined by Lori Wrotenbery, director of the Oklahoma Corporation Commission's oil and gas division, but she was unable to attend due to a conflict.

Whitsitt, Devon's executive vice president for public affairs, said it is important for industry officials to educate people who are not familiar with gas production about its benefits.

He said this week's hearings were only the beginning of a lengthy process to win more support for the increased gas production.

“We need to look at this as an opportunity to share information both inside the (Obama) administration and outside,” Whitsitt said.

Education needed

The Energy Department's natural gas subcommittee was formed in January to evaluate the role of natural gas in a future clean energy economy.

In late March, Energy Secretary Steven Chu asked the subcommittee to come up with recommendations for what could be done to improve the safety and environmental performance of shale gas extraction processes, along with other steps to protect public health and safety.

The subcommittee is supposed to complete its recommendations by mid-August, 90 days after its initial May 19 meeting.

Whitsitt said industry representatives had a good discussion with the subcommittee Wednesday.

He said the Energy Department panel does not include any representatives of the oil and natural gas industry, but its members are well respected in their fields.

Most have ties to the industry, but Whitsitt said he is concerned none are involved in the day-to-day search for natural gas.

Whitsitt said the subcommittee had been briefed on natural gas production by federal officials, but its education had some gaps when it came to what companies are doing to improve their practices.

He noted an industry group recently has revamped the recommended practices for all phases of natural gas operations.

Whitsitt also said committee members did not realize the extent of state regulation of gas drilling or the industry's efforts to disclose the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing.

He said FracFocus.org, a voluntary registry launched in April, already has information on about 1,200 wells from more than 40 companies. The website has attracted more than 35,000 visitors from 93 countries.

Whitsitt said committee members seemed engaged in the discussion of gas production and asked good questions.

He said industry officials need to continue to be responsive to the concerns expressed by the committee and others.

State role promoted

Ming said much of Thursday's session dealt with issues ancillary to hydraulic fracturing, such as safely handling fracking fluid and designing wells to minimize the risks of gas drilling.

“From an Oklahoma perspective, my message was that the states are far and away in the best position to develop regulations and enforce those regulations,” he said.

The American Petroleum Institute on Thursday applauded the Energy Department's dialogue on the development of America's vast natural gas resources, but the industry group urged officials not to stifle the development of one of the cleanest forms of energy with unneeded red tape.

“From well design to water use and site management, API standards and guidance documents have been used for decades with effective oversight by state environmental regulators,” said David Miller, the group's director of standards.

“We need to ensure we continue developing this nation's vast natural resources in the safest manner possible.”

API standards recognize that methods to access oil and natural gas resources vary by region so it is important that resource development be regulated appropriately by the states most familiar with regional geology, hydrology and biodiversity.

State regulators on Thursday repeated that state-based regulation has proved successful for safe industry operations.

Representatives of several states, including Texas and Arkansas, maintained that investigations in their states have not shown any cases of groundwater contamination resulting from hydraulic fracturing.

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