In Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York and even Texas, there is a fundamental debate over “fracking” — the hydraulic fracturing of shale rock that, together with horizontal drilling, unleashes abundant natural gas. Mostly, it’s the loud voices at the extremes who are dominating the debate: those who want either no fracking or no additional regulation of it. As usual, the voices in the sensible center are getting drowned out — with serious repercussions for our country’s future.
The production of shale gas through fracking is the most significant development in the U.S. energy sector in generations, and it affords four major benefits that people on both sides of the debate should welcome.
First, it’s good for consumers’ pocketbooks by helping to reduce energy costs. In the Northeast alone, fracking has helped stimulate major infrastructure investments that will soon bring the first new interstate natural-gas pipeline to New York City in decades.
Second, fracking spurs economic growth by bringing industrial jobs back to the United States — jobs that left several years ago when domestic natural-gas supplies were considered scarce and expensive.
Third, fracking reduces U.S. dependence on coal, which is one of the best things we can do to improve air quality and fight climate change. Modern gas-fired power plants produce effectively no sulfur dioxide or fine particulates and no mercury or toxic ash pollution. They use less water and generate about half the carbon dioxide pollution of coal. The more natural gas we produce, the more quickly we will be able to close dirty-burning coal plants.
Finally, done right, today’s more nimble natural gas plants even allow more renewable power to be integrated into the electricity grid than coal does.
Thanks to fracking, our national production of natural gas is up 25 percent from 2004-06 levels, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That’s a major reason domestic energy prices have stabilized — and why the United States’ annual carbon dioxide emissions are at their lowest level in two decades.
Fracking for natural gas can be as good for our environment as it is for our economy and our wallets, but only if done responsibly. The rapid expansion of fracking has invited legitimate concerns about its impact on water, air and climate — concerns that industry has attempted to gloss over.
With so much at stake for the environment, jobs and energy security, it is critical that we make reasoned decisions about how to manage the use of hydraulic fracturing technology.
Several states, including Colorado, New York and Ohio, are taking the lead in this regard, recognizing the need to establish an appropriate framework for regulatory safeguards. It appears that Texas, as the pioneer of hydraulic fracturing in shale formations, is poised to step forward in developing promising state guidelines as well. More such leadership is needed.
To jump-start this effort, each of our foundations will support organizations that seek to work with states and industries to develop common-sense regulations that will protect the environment — and ensure that the industry can thrive.
We will encourage better state regulation of fracking around five key principles:
l Disclosing all chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process;
l Optimizing rules for well construction and operation;
l Minimizing water consumption, protecting groundwater and ensuring proper disposal of wastewater;
l Improving air pollution controls, including capturing leaking methane, a potent greenhouse gas; and
l Reducing the impact on roads, ecosystems and communities.
The latest research, including peer-reviewed studies out of Carnegie Mellon University and Argonne National Laboratory, suggests that if properly extracted and distributed, the impact of natural gas on the climate is significantly less than that of coal. Safely fracking natural gas can mean healthier communities, a cleaner environment and a reliable domestic energy supply right now.
Some in the industry accept additional safeguards to promote confidence that shale gas development can proceed in a manner that protects natural resources and powers our future. These early leaders should partner with government officials and environmental organizations to ensure that strong and reasonable state regulations are adopted.
We can frack safely if we frack sensibly. That may not make for a great bumper sticker. It does make for good environmental and economic policy.