TULSA, Okla. (AP) — Better industry oversight, an honest dialogue with the public about controversial drilling methods and a clearer explanation from companies about how clean, natural gas can be extracted from wells drilled hundreds of feet underground is desperately needed from energy companies, two geoscientists said Tuesday.
The two spoke as part of a panel on hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," a controversial process that uses water, sand and other additives to free natural gas underground.
Critics worry about water and other environmental contamination and point to hundreds of earthquakes that have hit Oklahoma since fracking was introduced. But supporters say those fears are overblown.
One prominent proponent, billionaire energy magnate T. Boone Pickens, recently boasted that out of the 800,000 wells that have been fracked in the Southwest, he didn't know of a single lawsuit or complaint that arose from the process — even offering that he had fracked "over 3,000 wells" himself.
Tuesday's moderated discussion at the University of Tulsa featured scientists David Hughes and Terry Engelder. Hughes is president of Global Sustainability Research, Inc. and has studied energy resources for nearly 40 years. Engelder is a professor of geosciences at Penn State University and has previously served on the staffs of the U.S. Geological Survey, Texaco and Columbia University.
The two were expected to debate as part of the fourth-annual Chesapeake Energy Lecture presented by the TU College of Law and the National Energy Policy Institute. But they ended up agreeing on most points.
Engelder, who has been named to Foreign Policy magazine's 2011 list of "Top Global Thinkers," said energy companies have gone on the offensive, forming America's Natural Gas Alliance, to take their message directly to the public.
"They came out with a new ad ... and the first sentence had the word 'risk' in it," he told The Associated Press following this speech. "And it starts out something to the effect that everything we do is risk, and this includes the gas industry.
"That's a step in the right direction in terms of how the industry interacts with the public, and I think it is a very important step in terms of industry behavior that they are no longer shying away from that term 'risk,'" he said.
Engelder's counterpart, David Hughes, who has researched, published and lectured over the past 10 years on global energy and sustainability issues across the world, said there's no question about the risk to the environment but fracking makes economic sense and is "the right thing to do."
"It has to be done right," he said. "There is a risk, and we have to understand the risks. I will say the industry is capable of finding the leaks and fixing them."