Shale Gas Extraction and the Tacit Premise of Endless Industrialization
Tuesday, June 14, 2011
By Press Action
The National Public Radio program, “On Point,” focused on natural gas drilling activities in the Marcellus Shale during its June 10 broadcast. The host of “On Point,” Tom Ashbrook, took his show on the road, broadcasting from the radio studios of NPR member station WBFO in Buffalo.
Ashbrook’s guests were Rob Jackson, professor of environmental sciences at Duke University and an author of a recent study that analyzed water quality near natural gas wells, and Abrahm Lustgarten, a reporter with ProPublica who has covered the issue of hydraulic fracturing in shale plays across the United States over the last three years. They were joined by Daniel Robison, a reporter with public radio station WNED who has chronicled the natural gas drilling debate in New York, where there remains a moratorium on drilling in the Marcellus Shale.
Ashbrook led a generally informed discussion on the issue of hydraulic fracturing and its potential impact on water supplies. Jackson summarized the findings of the Duke University study. According to Jackson, the water from wells of homeowners who live within 1 kilometer of a natural gas drilling operation in Pennsylvania, where gas production has been moving full steam ahead for the past four years, was found to contain 17 times the average level of methane—what he described as “dangerously” higher levels of methane.
But Jackson also noted that the Duke University researchers did not find any evidence of fracking fluids contaminating the well water of these Pennsylvania residents.
Jackson said the authors of the Duke University study are calling for a medical review of the health effects of chronic exposure to low levels of methane in water and the air. There has been no peer-reviewed research on exposure to these levels of methane and “we think that is something the government should look at,” he said.
Toward the end of the conversation, Ashbrook asked Jackson to predict how the controversy surrounding hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus Shale and other U.S. shale plays will shake out in the coming years, given that “we’ve got a country that is hungry for energy.” Jackson responded that, as a nation, “What we need to do is to proceed cautiously with shale gas extraction, but to proceed.”
Because natural gas is cleaner-burning than coal and is an abundant domestic fuel source, the industry should “improve the best management practices” its uses when drilling in unconventional gas plays, he argued.
Jackson did not address the issue of why the United States is so “hungry for energy” and whether attempting to satisfy this hunger is the correct path to follow. He declined to consider another scenario, one in which the United States begins to move toward a way of life that requires substantially smaller amounts of energy. Jackson did not dispute the premise of Ashbrook’s question. He argued that if not natural gas, then the United States will need to rely on other energy sources to meet its growing demand. Neither the word “conservation” nor the phrase “reduce our consumption” was part of his vocabulary during the OnPoint discussion.
“Part of the answer to that question really is, what do we use instead if we slam the door shut on natural gas? Might we put up wind mills or solar panels or might we rely instead on more extensive mountaintop mining, which has enormous problems for water, for streams, for the coal ash that is produced,” Jackson said. “The question of how to proceed depends on the safety of natural but is also depends on the other sources that we might use for our electricity and power.”
Roxanne Amico, a Buffalo-based artist, independent radio producer and activist, noted that academics and experts generally sympathetic to the issue of preserving environmental health and safety “never touch” the issue of rolling back economic growth and its attendant energy use.
“Industrialization is the tacit premise, that’s assumed to be what needs to be saved, rather than the world that it’s threatening,” Amico told Press Action.
During the OnPoint discussion, Lustgarten agreed with Jackson about natural gas playing a major role in the nation’s energy future. “I would guess that fracking is a part of our future, that gas drilling is a part of our future. We do need the energy,” Lustgarten said. “I think it’s really a question of how to do it safely. … There are a slew of different ways to manage aspects of the drilling process as well as the leaked emissions that can severely limit the amount of side effects, the environmental impacts, and make this process much, much safer. You may see regulation of hydraulic fracturing that would tighten that oversight and make it more akin to other types of underground injection in the near future and that also would aid in making the fracturing process, the drilling process a little bit more welcome in the communities that are coping with it.”
As noted by Jackson and Lustgarten, there indeed are ways that the natural gas industry can mitigate the environmental impact of its drilling operations. Horizontal drilling allows a larger area of a natural gas-bearing geological formation to be accessed from a single well pad. There can be tighter regulations on the chemicals used in the fracturing process and more attention paid to preventing leaks within well casings near the surface.
Even if these and other safety measures are adopted by the industry and enforced by their regulators, the demand for natural gas will still require the rapid industrialization of the land that sits atop the Marcellus Shale. Large numbers of wells will need to be drilled. For the hydraulic fracturing process, huge amounts of water will be needed. Waste pits will pop up near the drilling sites. Roads will need to be built to provide access to the drilling sites. New pipelines will need to be built. Compressor stations will need to be built. Each of these phases of the natural gas production and gathering process will require the use of products, such as concrete, steel and asphalt, that use tremendous amounts of oil-based products and coal during a very energy-intensive manufacturing process.
In an excellent new report released June 13, Food & Water Watch, an advocacy group led by long-time environmental activist Wenonah Hauter, said the rapid expansion of shale gas extraction has brought rampant environmental and economic problems to rural communities across the United States.
“Accidents and leaks have polluted rivers, streams and drinking water supplies. Regions peppered with drilling rigs have high levels of smog as well as other airborne pollutants, including potential carcinogens,” Food & Water Watch said in its report entitled “The Case for a Ban on Gas Fracking.” “Rural communities face an onslaught of heavy truck traffic—often laden with dangerous chemicals used in drilling—and declining property values.
Anti-fracking activists and local residents have worked hard over the past few years and have tremendous momentum behind them right now. They should not squander this opportunity by accepting the premise advanced by Jackson and Lustgarten—that wide-scale natural gas drilling in the Marcellus is inevitable. They should continue applying pressure to prevent the industrialization of the lands and waters that surround their homes.
The experts among us who should know better, including academics such as Jackson, often fail to consider the option—better yet, the necessity—of de-industrialization when given the opportunity. There’s already a vocal and dedicated opposition to hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus Shale, particularly in New York. And this planet cannot handle unbridled and limitless industrial growth for much longer. One of the commenters on the OnPoint website perhaps said it best when he explained that the isssue extends far beyond what was discussed during the radio program. He wrote:
"Whether it’s exploding mountain tops in Appalachia or cracking rocks to release natural gas all over the country, they are all desperate attempts to satisfy the appetite of the monster, and that monster is all of us with our monster trucks, monster SUVs, oversized monster houses. Desperate attempts to keep an obscene pattern of culture on life support."