Company CEOs testify on Capitol Hill, stand by hydraulic fracturing
The House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing Wednesday morning on the merger between oil giant ExxonMobil and unconventional natural gas specialists XTO. The $41 billion deal, agreed on in mid-December, could indicate that some of the more environmentally damaging methods of oil and gas extraction will soon become more common in the vast unconventional gas reserves in the United States.
The chairman and founder of XTO, Bob Simpson, as well as ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson both testified at the panel hearing. In their statements to the committee, both executives stressed the environmental advantages to natural gas over oil and other non-renewable energy sources. This is a common refrain, however, when discussing natural gas: hide behind its advantages over dirtier things without commenting on its disadvantages compared to cleaner things.
XTO has around 45 trillion cubic feet of gas resources, including shale gas, tight gas, coal bed methane and shale oil. Much of their holdings lie in three of the biggest shale gas formations in the country, the Marcellus, Haynesville and Barnett shales. In the hearing, they also only briefly touched on the questionable methods needed to extract the vast gas resources that XTO owns. The gas sources are called "unconventional" for a reason, after all.
Getting the gas out of shale formations usually involves horizontal drilling or hydraulic fracturing, also known as hydrofracking or just fracking. Hydrofracking techniques include the injection of both water and various chemicals — including carcinogens and endocrine disruptors — into the rock formations to induce fractures. Controversy remains on the impact of these processes and if the chemicals can contaminate drinking water, but there has been substantial movement in trying to stop the free-for-all drilling in some of the more environmentally sensitive shale areas. For example, drilling has been proposed in parts of the Catskill and Delaware watersheds in upstate New York; these areas provide a huge proportion of the drinking water for New York City.
Are environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing being glossed-over?
In advocating for their methods of unconventional gas procurement, ExxonMobil's Tillerson used one of my least favorite rhetorical techniques: 'we've been doing something for a while, so that means we should keep doing it.' Said Tillerson:
"With recent advances in extended reach horizontal drilling, combined with the time-tested technology of hydraulic fracturing – a process in use for more than 60 years – we can now find and produce unconventional natural gas supplies miles below the surface in a safe, efficient and environmentally responsible manner."
Simpson, of XTO, was just as glib, saying that the merger and ensuing efforts to reach the trillions of cubic feet of gas "will support our nation’s economic recovery and energy security while also helping meet our nation’s environmental goals." Indeed.
It is pretty much mandatory that any statement from oil and gas company executives will have the word "environmental" in there somewhere these days, but the fact is that this merger, and the potentially enormous drilling and fracking projects that might ensue, could be among the most damaging environmental undertakings in the country.
Last summer, democrats in Congress who are aware of this potential went so far as to introduce matching House and Senate bills called the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act; the FRAC Act. They haven't made it out of committee yet, but let's hope we see some movement on this before ExxonMobil and XTO can start tearing up sizable chunks of the country.
Follow Dave Levitan on Twitter @davelevitan.
Images via: Wikimedia Commons; Tim Hurst