Column: The natural gas debate

By Joy Wang

Harvard Political Review, Harvard U. via UWIRE

On New Year’s Day 2009, a residential drinking water well in Dimock, Pennsylvania, exploded without warning. Investigations after the incident revealed that a stray spark touched off methane fumes that had been slowly been accumulating in the well for weeks prior to the incident, causing what could well have been a lethal explosion. Further tests by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) and the EPA found methane-contaminated drinking water in the wells of several other Dimock households. No conclusive link between Cabot Oil and Gas’s drilling activities and the explosion was established, but the incidents brought national media coverage to the shale gas debate.

Much press and controversy has surrounded the rise of shale gas drilling, particularly in Pennsylvania and New York. Nevertheless, natural gas as an energy source provides substantial benefits, both geopolitical and environmental, that cannot be ignored. As the United States seeks to move towards a more sustainable and stable energy future, the crucial role of shale gas development has become readily apparent. Still, much of the critical discourse necessary to formulate sound policy has been obscured by partisan inertia on the national level and deep division on the local level, as well as substantial yet hyperbolic media coverage.

The Argument for Natural Gas

Carbon dioxide emissions in the United States have dropped off precipitously in the past few years, an unpredicted new development largely attributed to the availability of inexpensive natural gas—the exponential growth of drilling in the Marcellus and other shale formations has more than halved its cost.

Natural gas is often touted as a more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional fossil fuels such as oil and coal. John Hanger, the former secretary of PADEP, told the HPR in a recent interview, “Over fifty-five percent of our energy comes from coal and oil, both of which cause infinitely more harmful environmental impacts that [natural] gas ever could or ever will.” According to the EPA, natural gas-fired power plants emit half the carbon dioxide, a third of the nitrogen oxides, and 1 percent of the sulfur oxides produced by coal-fired plants, while also avoiding the heavy metal-laden waste associated with coal.

As the cost of natural gas extraction has fallen drastically in the past few years, it has become the fuel of choice for many industries. Many are optimistic about the role natural gas has to play in shaping a cleaner energy future; among them is Seamus McGraw, author of The End of Country: Dispatches from the Frack Zone, who noted in a recent interview with the HPR, “[T]he risks associated with natural gas are profound and it is still a fossil fuel and a source of carbon and other pollution… but [shale gas drilling] has reduced as a result our dependency on the single dirtiest, deadliest form of energy there is.” 

Shale formations span the length of the Eastern seaboard, covering most of upstate New York, western and central Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, extending as far south as Mississippi and Alabama. Other shale formations include the Barnett Shale in Texas and the Antrim in Michigan. The Marcellus shale formation alone contains gas reservoirs that Penn State University geosciences professor Terry Engelder has conservatively estimated to contain 168 trillion cubic feet (TCF) of natural gas—five and a half times what the United States currently produces in a year. Shale gas drilling has already almost singlehandedly reduced the cost of natural gas by fifty percent, making it an increasingly attractive energy option.

As the United States tries to reduce its carbon emissions to curb global warming, many proponents of shale gas drilling have touted natural gas as a cost-effective bridge fuel to a renewable energy economy. Estimates of recoverable natural gas in shale formations predict no more than a century’s worth of natural gas, at current usage rates. Even supporters of shale gas development acknowledge that it can only be a temporary fix. “We don’t have a hundred years,” McGraw asserts. “If we’re still burning [natural gas] in thirty years, we’re screwed.”

Frack No: The Shale Gas Story in New York and Pennsylvania

The past five years have seen the rise of shale gas drilling from novel application to industry bulwark. According to the Energy Information Administration, shale gas’s share of the domestic natural gas market has risen from 1 percent in the year 2000 to almost 20 percent in 2010. Along with its meteoric rise has come a vociferous and diverse public response.

Towns like Dimock in northeastern Pennsylvania have become a flashpoint for the shale gas controversy. Tensions between neighbors run high, with Dimock resident Anne Teel telling NPR’s StateImpact, “I don’t like to go to the grocery store and have neighbors who won’t say hello to me. That’s not the way I live. But that’s unfortunately what’s happened because of this.” Virulent anti-fracking sentiment has led to enormous pressure on local and state governments to respond quickly to new developments in drilling technology, but regulation has by its nature remained several steps behind each new advancement.

Hundreds of townships, however, have taken legal action in the courts and through zoning restrictions to block the construction of drill sites and recoup damages from contaminated water and air. “Since the oil and gas industries are largely exempt from any uniform federal level of regulation … and it’s largely up to the states to regulate oil and gas activity,” Tony Ingraffea, a professor at Cornell University’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, told the HPR, “the people of New York have seen what’s happened in Pennsylvania, and [townships are] not confident that the New York DEC can do any better of a job at this point than the Pennsylvania DEP.”

Shale gas drilling in New York and Pennsylvania has developed along radically different lines—whereas the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has yet to finish what has become a five-year long review of shale gas drilling in the state, Pennsylvania has almost 9000 unconventional gas wells on the books as of this June and approves dozens more drill sites on a monthly basis.

With almost one-third of land in the state of Pennsylvania under lease to drilling companies, the potential impacts of drilling in the state are astronomical. “Over the next few decades, there will be hundreds of thousands of wells, tens of thousands of miles of pipelines, tens of thousands of miles of roads, that will spin like a spider web across the state…and we don’t know what the cumulative impacts of that will be,” John Quigley, former secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, told the HPR.

The Road Forward

The EPA, for all of its efforts, has been hobbled by the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which exempted oil and gas companies from many provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act, and thus from EPA jurisdiction. Legislation at the federal level to mandate the disclosure of lists of fracking chemicals was first introduced in both the House and Senate in 2009, but has yet to move out of committee. Both presidential candidates appear to have given fracking a pass in this election cycle: while Romney lambasted Obama in an April campaign stop in Tunkhannock, Pa. for delaying natural gas development with overregulation, the Obama campaign has touted the increase in natural gas development as an integral part of the President’s “all-of-the-above” energy strategy.

Environmental groups remain hopeful that the citizen outcry will result in action on a national level. Some have compared the current debate over shale gas drilling to the debate over pesticides in the 1970s. “There wasn’t action at the federal level, so communities started taking action for themselves—they created buffer zones, they outright banned certain pesticides … and we eventually saw action at the federal level,” Kathleen Sutcliffe, a campaign manager at Earthjustice, told the HPR.

PADEP has introduced a whole host of new regulations on water usage and water waste disposal in the past few years, and the New York State DEC is currently considering the public health effects of shale gas drilling before releasing an environmental impact statement, but the regulatory process remains slow. Longitudinal studies on long-term impacts of shale gas drilling are scarce, and Geisinger Health System, a healthcare provider in Pennsylvania, is beginning one of the first of such studies this year. “We can’t afford to repeat the mistakes of the past,” Quigley said. “The way forward is with good regulation, good industry practice, and good science.”

The shale gas narrative has unfolded along the traditional paths of industry and environment, citizens and corporations. From media to policy, the debate over fracking is a microcosm of the paralysis and polarization plaguing our politics writ large. Whatever the best path forward may be, what is certain is that our action—or inaction—on shale gas will define the world’s energy and environmental future for decades to come.

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