May/June 2011 Clean, Cheap, and Out of Control

Why natural gas could be the fuel of the future, and how the industry could blow it all up.

By Jesse Zwick

Photo: Courtesy of Gasland

A few years ago, land agents representing natural gas companies began knocking on doors throughout Pennsylvania and upstate New York offering residents vast sums for the right to drill on their land. One such resident was filmmaker Josh Fox, who owns property close to the Delaware River in Milanville, Pennsylvania. Torn by the nearly hundred-thousand-dollar deal presented to him, he decided to learn all he could about the revolution going on within the natural gas industry and to make a documentary about what he learned.

Fox discovered first that his land was atop the Marcellus Shale reserve, a formation of shale rock larger than Greece and potentially containing more cubic feet of natural gas than any single site on earth except the South Pars field in Iran. New drilling technologies—commonly called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking”—made it possible to exploit these vast reserves for the first time. As he soon discovered, however, the process was not without some grave environmental risks.

Fox traveled across the country talking to landowners who had signed away their mineral rights and allowed drilling for natural gas on their land. Many reported that their groundwater wells had been contaminated and their health compromised. In the film’s most memorable scene, a man from Colorado takes a match to his running kitchen tap and sparks a ball of flame. “I smell hair,” the man chuckles, before admitting, “that one was kind of spooky.”

Last year, Fox’s documentary, called Gasland, won a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Aired repeatedly on HBO and public television, it soon elevated fracking to a major issue, especially in New York. There, the state legislature had recently passed a bill enlarging the maximum possible “spacing unit” for gas wells, effectively allowing the industry to implement its controversial new drilling techniques. In response, residents began raising questions about what the effects would be on upstate tourism and on New York City’s water supply, which comes from areas where gas drilling was expected to be intensive.

Facing an outpouring of concern from their constituents, state legislators scrambled in the waning days of 2010 to pass a moratorium on natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale. The state’s outgoing governor, David Patterson, refused to sign the legislation. But he issued an executive order that placed a moratorium on the most modern and productive practices now used to extract natural gas, including not just high-volume hydraulic fracturing, but horizontal drilling. The effect has been to block virtually all new gas drilling in New York’s sizable portion of the Marcellus until the state issues a revised environmental impact assessment sometime in mid-2011.

Beyond then, the fate of the industry remains unclear. In the early spring of 2011, the New York Times concluded a three-part investigative series that raised alarms about the discharge of wastewater used in the fracking process into rivers, including the Monongahela, which supplies Pittsburgh’s drinking water. Though the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has reported finding no threatening amounts of radioactivity in rivers downstream from gas drilling fields, it is also considering more stringent disclosure of the chemicals used in fracking. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, meanwhile, has documented the presence of potentially dangerous chemicals in thirty-nine wells in a Wyoming community surrounded by gas drilling and, over the strident objection of the industry, is currently engaged in a major new study that will look more comprehensively at the possible environmental threats posed by gas drilling.

So far, the drama over gas drilling might seem like a straightforward victory of the environmental movement over further exploitation of fossil fuels. But the view among national environmental organizations has been decidedly more nuanced. Groups like the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council have increasingly come to embrace the potential role that natural gas can play as a “bridge fuel” to a low-carbon domestic energy economy—and for good reason. Newly abundant and potentially cheap, natural gas produces around half as much carbon pollution as coal when burned for electricity. It is also relatively easy to convert coalfired boilers to the use of natural gas.

Better yet, moving to greater use of natural gas in electrical generation can also solve one of the big obstacles facing wind and solar power, which is their need for a reliable backup system for calm or cloudy days. Unlike coal-fired generators, gas-fired plants are easy to turn on and off, and thus work better with intermittent wind and solar power than does coal.

Moreover, natural gas has many promising applications in transportation that could help reduce our dependency on gasoline and diesel fuel, both of which are dirtier and have extremely limited domestic supply. Natural gas doesn’t work very well as an energy source for automobiles, because it is far bulkier than gasoline and there are hardly any service stations currently set up to sell it. But as a way to power local truck, taxi, and bus fleets, as well as ships and locomotives, natural gas offers a fossil fuel alternative that is abundant, practical, and far greener than any alternative on the horizon. Natural gas is also a logical choice for generating much of the juice needed to power electric cars.

Both the promise and potential perils of natural gas make knee-jerk reactions to fracking hardly appropriate. This applies to people who instinctively reject any further use of fossil fuels without being able to point to any realistic, short-term alternatives. It also applies to many powerful figures in the gas industry itself, who reflexively and unrealistically reject any further regulatory oversight despite the very real dangers involved in natural gas production.

Between the two, we are headed for the worst of all possible outcomes—one in which misguided environmentalism combines with industry intransigence to create a political climate that shuts off further natural gas production, thereby delaying the move toward cleaner, renewable sources of energy for perhaps another generation. If a few contaminated wells in rural towns were enough to put a hold on gas drilling in New York State, it’s easy to imagine how an incident that was far from catastrophic would still be enough to create an effective moratorium on new drilling, especially since most of the new gas happens to be in areas that are close to major population centers. Even the status quo, argues Scott Anderson at the Environmental Defense Fund, is a sort of “slow-moving Three Mile Island. It’s more the cumulative effect of a large number of smaller problems.”

Jesse Zwick is a writer living in Washington, DC.