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U.S. advisory group on fracking has abundant ties to energy industry

As first recommendations emerge from Energy panel, scientists seek ouster of the chairman, John Deutch - a former CIA chief and director of Energy companies

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A drilling rig in Houston, Pa., ground zero for the boom in natural gas extraction. 

Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

All but one member of a government advisory panel weighing the safety of one of the most contentious forms of energy development, known as fracking, have financial ties to the natural gas industry, scientists and some environmental groups are asserting. The scientists called for the ouster of its chairman, former CIA director John Deutch, who has sat on the boards of two energy-related companies.

The group, which reports to Energy Secretary Seven Chu, is concluding that development of shale gas can be done safely provided that companies fully disclose the chemicals used in fracturing liquids, and that they face monitoring of their activities and rigorous standards for emissions of airborne contaminants.

While the Energy Department doesn't regulate natural gas production, the Environmental Protection Agency is still months from reaching conclusions in its own study, and the panel is leaving largely unaddressed the most sensitive issue of toxic chemicals that may make their way into drinking water supplies, opponents of fracking fear the Energy panel's recommendation can give a boost to the industry.

The committee, formed in May, was tasked to review fracking, also known as hydraulic fracturing, in which gas companies pump sand, water and chemicals into wells drilled into the ground to break up the earth below in order to release and then capture natural gas. Critics say fracking could be tainting groundwater, killing wildlife and, as iWatchNews has reported, giving off methane gas that contributes to global warming.

Earlier this year, in his State of the Union address, President Obama endorsed natural gas as part of the solution to feed the nation's energy needs, and then sought to have the advice from the Energy Department panel.

In a letter to Chu, 28 scientists complained that the committee, formally known as the Natural Gas Subcommittee of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board, "appears to be performing advocacy-based science and seems to have already concluded that hydraulic fracturing is safe." The scientists ask Chu to replace Deutch "with a person with no financial ties to the natural gas and oil industry," as well as add "independent members" to the committee.

An environmental group, the Environmental Working Group, previously objected to the advisory group's makeup, saying Deutch received more than $1.4 million from energy companies Schumberger and Cheniere Energy for serving on their boards between 2006 and 2009.

Other members of the committee said to have current financial ties to the natural gas and oil industry are Stephen Holditch, Kathleen McGinty, Susan Tierney, Daniel Yergin and Mark Zoback. The scientists said their "conflicts of interest make it appear that the subcommittee is designed to serve industry at taxpayer expense rather than serving President Obama and the public with credible advice."

Energy Department spokesperson Tiffany Edwards defended the committee's composition, saying it is "balanced" and that each member has experience and expertise, including technical and practical knowledge. "Some have said that the panel is too weighted toward industry, while others say it is too weighted towards environmentalists. We think we got it just right, and having a diversity of perspectives will only strengthen the final product."

Industry representatives often serve on government advisory boards, including the one that advises Energy Department Secretary Chu. As iWatch News has reported, Chu's advisory board on energy policy includes one of the president's big campaign fundraisers, a venture capitalist who has invested in companies receiving seed money from the Energy Department.

A 1972 federal law, the Federal Advisory Committee Act, requires only that advisory committees be “fairly balanced.” There are an estimated 900 formal advisory groups scattered across the government, comprising some 65,000 committee members who counsel more than 55 agencies, according to a 2008 Government Accountability Office report. By advising agencies such as the EPA, FDA and Energy Department, members of the advisory committees can influence standards for food safety, environmental protection and energy use.

The role of advisory committees can be more important than it might seem. Industry players or technical experts with a vested interest in agency decisions gain access to regulators and a platform to advance arguments in Congress. Sometimes, agencies have faced legal challenges for ignoring the recommendations of advisory committees.

While the Obama White House has advertised efforts to minimize the direct influence of registered lobbyists, efforts at a crackdown have been soft. Last year, Obama appeared to call for an end to the membership of lobbyists on advisory committees  – in the form of an  announcement on a White House blog by Norm Eisen, then the president’s special ethics counsel. Lobbyists and executives from Boeing, International Paper Co., IBM and 13 other companies and trade organizations quickly complained - and threatened to circumvent the requirement by having their lobbyists simply stop registering.

"There are financial ties with the industry" on the fracking advisory panel, said Kyle Ash, a lobbyist for the environmental group Greenpeace. "The administration said they weren't going to have special interests." 

The letter seeking Deutch's ouster was signed by 28 scientists, including researchers and professors at the University of California, Cornell and Penn State.

While the Energy Department weighs its views on fracking, the EPA has undertaken a study on groundwater quality, due to be finished late next year. Among environmentalists' concerns: The Energy Department's advisory panel could influence the issue before that study is made public.

"We're concerned their findings could undercut the Environmental Protection Agency's findings, which have taken a lot more time and have been a lot more rigorous," said Leann Brown, spokesperson for the Environmental Working Group.

In 2009, the Department of Energy predicted that shale gas, the kind of gas that fracking produces, would account for 20 percent of the United State’s total energy consumption in 2020.

In Pennsylvania, according to a study for the American Petroleum Institute, drilling in the Marcellus shale region, which is one of the most prominent in the country, has risen substantially over the past five years. In 2005, just three wells were drilled. In 2009, that number rose to 710.