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

Ultimately, this weak regulatory structure could be the Achilles’ heel of the whole effort to expand domestic natural gas exploration. To see how, consider what happened last year to offshore oil drilling in America. For years, the petroleum industry had been lobbying Washington to open up more of the U.S. coastline for oil drilling, even as it successfully fought stricter federal oversight of existing wells. Finally, last March, the industry seemed to win big when the Obama administration— eager to court GOP support for climate change legislation— announced that it would end a long-held moratorium on oil exploration along the Eastern Seaboard from Delaware to central Florida and in the eastern Gulf of Mexico. Three weeks later, the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, spilling several million barrels of oil into the Gulf. Eight months after that, the administration rescinded its lifting of the moratorium; now, new drilling will have to wait until at least 2017, and possibly longer. It is not hard to imagine a similarly traumatic accident involving natural gas—say, dangerous chemicals from fracking showing up in Pittsburgh’s drinking water—leading to a wholesale, years-long ban on gas drilling in any number of states.

Yet instead of welcoming increased regulation as a hedge against such a public backlash, many in the industry, including major oil companies like BP and ExxonMobil, maintain a deeply engrained antiregulatory zeal and put out all manner of contradictory arguments for why they should be trusted to drill without more government oversight. “They say they’re not the problem and all the accidents are caused by all the small companies,” says Mall at the NRDC, “but then they turn around and say they can’t have new rules because of the cost concerns for their smaller brothers and sisters.” In fact, large oil and gas companies have been quite up front about their opposition to enhanced regulations. When ExxonMobil acquired XTO Energy and its large natural gas holdings last year, the company wrote into its merger deal that if Congress makes the practice of hydraulic fracturing “illegal or commercially impracticable,” it reserves the right to back out.

Clearly, making fracking “illegal or commercially impracticable” would be a grievous and irresponsible blow to the natural gas industry and the fate of the climate alike, and environmentalists who have that as their real goal are doing the country and the planet no favors. But when industry stands in the way of the commonsense increases in regulation that will be necessary to develop our gas reserves safely, it too is being irresponsible— and incredibly shortsighted.

Jesse Zwick is a writer living in Washington, DC.