Gas Industry and Regulation

By Max Luke and Alex Trembath

On Thursday, August 29, President Obama visited Binghamton, New York, and was met by a diverse collection of citizens. On one side were organized opponents of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, protesting the President’s more-than-tacit support for an industrial practice with significant impacts on local communities. On the other side, members of the Joint Landowners Coalition hosted a picnic endorsing the economic and environmental benefits fracking would bring to New York. Similar face-offs have been staged recently at political events in Ohio, Colorado, and elsewhere. But while anti-fracking sentiment fomented by national environmental organizations have focused on groundwater contamination and fugitive greenhouse gases, the protests and recent surveys indicate that communities are far more concerned about issues like increased trucking traffic, pollution from gas processing plants, and the industrialization of virgin landscapes.

As fracking activists of all stripes continue their campaigns, it is crucial that the oil and gas industry itself intervene to bridge dialogues, welcome criticisms, and demonstrate proactive efforts to make fracking safer and cleaner. Cooperation with affected communities should be a key priority of industry as the steward of precious national resources.

Arguments about the local land use impacts of natural gas drilling are at the heart of protestors’ concerns. Opponents argue that dotting landscapes with fracking wells could permanently spoil the countryside, and that the additional roads and construction traffic would be noisy and polluting. Fracking wells require additional infrastructure and a flow of large trucks to bring sand, water, and drilling gear to each site. The potential for groundwater contamination, improper wastewater disposal, and fugitive methane leakage also rank on the list of concerns, although recent research indicates these cause less worry than groups like the Sierra Club would suggest.

A complex response to America’s fracking boom was inescapable. Energy modernization, as exhibited by the switch from coal to gas in the United States, is fundamentally a transition towards cheaper, cleaner fuels. But tradeoffs are inevitable. Valid concerns remain over the environmental impacts of fracking, including groundwater contamination by methane and fracking fluid, wastewater disposal, landscape and ecosystem impacts, and fugitive methane leakage.

The gas industry should embrace, rather than dismiss, the criticisms it faces. While cherry-picking and hyperbole are no doubt employed against the shale gas revolution, particularly by national and celebrity activists who use local concerns as a smokescreen for their anti-natural gas agenda, many local concerns are legitimate and valid. The industrialization of landscapes unaccustomed to large-scale energy development can have as significant impacts as the economic boon brought to many communities by abundant gas reserves.

When considering the environmental impacts of fracking we must also consider the impacts of the other energy sources that it displaces. Coal now supplies less than 40% of America’s electricity needs, compared to about 50% in 2007. Without the expansion of shale gas in the United States coal’s share in the energy mix would be much higher than its current historical low.

In our recent Breakthrough Institute report, “Coal Killer: How Natural Gas Fuels the Clean Energy Revolution,” we argue for clear, effective regulations as an essential part of continued shale gas development. Regulators should look to best practices in states with experience overseeing oil and gas industries and enforce rules requiring shale developers to seal wells properly to prevent groundwater contamination. Rules requiring wells to be sited at a safe distance away from residential and municipal wells, freshwater springs, streams, and wetlands should be strictly enforced.

Regulatory enforcement will certainly prove essential in many cases, but just as crucial is the need for the industry to take the lead in cleaning up its act. Both to gain the trust of affected communities, and as stewards of American energy and natural resources, oil and gas companies have a responsibility to work proactively to mitigate chemical contamination, fugitive emissions, and depletion of local water resources. This work has already begun. Recommendations from the Environmental Defense Fund, the World Resources Institute, and the Center for Sustainable Shale Development should and are being embraced by industry.

The shale revolution is nothing if not disruptive, mostly for the better. But gas proponents who ignore the ongoing industrialization of landscapes do so to the peril of American energy modernization. If the US shale revolution is to stand as a global model for climate action, as we believe it should, then industry will have to take the first steps towards making shale production as clean, safe, and sustainable as possible.

This article is reprinted with permission and originally appeared in Global Energy Initiative's newsletter.

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