It is perhaps the defining awareness of our time—the dawning realization that allowing our economy and ourselves to become so unabashedly dependent on fossil fuels to sustain our way of life, may not have been such a great idea.
At first there was the problem of pollution and smog, local impacts that were at least partly remediated by technological fixes. This was superseded in a big way by global warming, which has had us fretting now for several decades (and only now finally starting to take action). Add to that, the announcement that, despite our wishes that it weren’t so, oil and gas are not going to last forever, nor is coal, for that matter. Then, as underscored by our military entanglements in the Middle East, came what we thought was the final bit of bad news, the fact that a lot of the countries that we buy this stuff from are, a) pretty unstable and b) not particularly enamored with us.
And for a while, that was the list. Defenders of the status quo blithely sailing on, urged us to increase domestic production, drilling in the Arctic and expanding offshore operations, which addressed items two and three, while conveniently ignoring item one. One lecture I attended, given by an oil company representative posing as a geology professor, assured us that we still had many years of oil supply left since, as the price of oil began to rise, the huge supply of what had been “economically unrecoverable” reserves would begin to shift into the “economically recoverable” category. What he didn’t tell us about was the risk.
Enter the Deepwater Horizon. When that platform blew up on April 20th, giving birth to an oil geyser that we now know delivered some 4.9 million barrels of oil into one of the great marine wildlife and seafood producing areas in the world, making it the largest unintentional oil spill in world history, the game changed for good. CJ Warner, former head of global refining for BP said in an interview last year, “I had a slow but growing realization that the industry was maturing, the current fields were falling off in volume more quickly than anticipated, and the feats required to find new oil were becoming more and more heroic.” Warner now heads Sapphire Energy, a bio-fuel company.
All of this is backdrop to explain why the NY State Senate voted this week to impose a moratorium on a type of exploration for natural gas called hydraulic fracturing or hydrofracking in a geological formation covering a large swath of NY state extending into Pennsylvania called the Marcellus Shale. The moratorium extends until May 11, 2011.
By all appearances, the discovery of a huge new natural gas deposit in this region seemed like nothing but good news. The discovery was a big one. According to geology.com “Marcellus might soon be a major contributor to the natural gas supply of the United States – large enough to be spoken of as a ‘super giant’ gas field.” And considering the fact that it was domestic, relatively inexpensive, and had significantly lower GHG emissions than coal, it seemed to effectively address all the items on what used to be the list, before April 20th.
But in order to effectively release the gas that was trapped between layers of shale, the shale had to be fractured using huge volumes of water under very high pressure. Conventional oil drilling methods were not effective for this. But what makes this technique so distasteful to anyone concerned about the environment is the slew of toxic chemicals that are added to the water to increase its effectiveness as a jackhammer. These chemicals are inevitably finding their way into the water table that feeds a number of public water supplies as well as impacting fish and wildlife. That is in addition to other risks, such as accidental explosions. Also controversial are the vast amounts of water that are required for this type of operation.
Citizens Campaign for the Environment, lists the following concerns on their website:
- Contamination of sensitive watersheds including sole-source aquifers and unfiltered drinking water supplies.
- Violation of the ban, passed by Congress and the NYS Legislature in 2008, on interbasin transfers between the Great Lakes and other basins.
- Lack of coordination between critical state agencies to protect the public heath and our environment while allowing permitted natural gas extraction to be efficiently delivered to market.
- The need for a Community/Water Protection Fund to mitigate unforeseen water and public health impairments resulting from modern natural gas drilling techniques in the Marcellus and other shale formations.
- Lack of transparency in the permitting process.
There are those who are more concerned about future energy price shocks and see this as environmental obstructionism, but even from an economic standpoint, it should be clear that disasters like the Deepwater Horizon add significantly to the hidden cost of fossil energy. And for anyone willing to step back and look at the big picture, the urgent need to accelerate energy conservation efforts and the adaptation of renewables, has never been more clear.
In the meantime, it may well be that appropriate, safe techniques can be developed to harvest some portion of this gas with minimal impact. But if the disaster in the Gulf taught us nothing else, caution is warranted when dealing with projects with this much damage potential, because, as Ben Franklin once said, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
RP Siegel is co-author of the popular eco-thriller Vapor Trails.
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