Natural Gas Drilling Industry: Situation Normal, All Fracked Up


Less than two weeks after the federal government reduced its estimates of how much natural gas can be extracted from Marcellus Shale, the Pennsylvania state Legislature has opted to ease the gas industry’s ability to drill. The vote, which supporters are touting as a win for consumers, imposes what essentially is a nominal tax on the gas while freezing local governments out of the land-use process when drilling is concerned.

The drilling industry, of course, was the muscle behind the push for the legislation, with various groups tied to drilling spending a total of $3.37 million during the first nine months of 2011, according to the Morning Call of Lehigh Valley. The big guns in the lobbying effort, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry trade group, spent $1.2 million of that total.

The figure dwarfed the $178,909 spent by the state’s major environmental groups – and underscores the damage done to our democracy by corporate America and its control of all branches of government at the federal and state levels.

Pennsylvanians favor drilling, but not by a wide margin. Pennsylvanians, of course, have been targeted by a huge advertising campaign – TV commercials, billboards, speeches – designed to sway public opinion by pointing out the benefits and obscuring the very real dangers of drilling for natural gas.

The environmental community has attempted to fight back, but groups like the Sierra Club do not have the money to go blow for blow. And in a time of economic uncertainty, the promise of jobs and tax revenue for the state is hard to turn down. Natural gas drilling – especially the method known as fracking (hydraulic fracturing) – is a dangerous and dirty business.

While natural gas is sold as a cleaner-burning fuel, and a viable alternative to oil and coal, it poisons water supplies, creates unstable land masses and difficulties in disposing contaminated soil. This is not a small point. As Earth Times has pointed out (Martin Leggett, March 2011), given that the drilling industry was “exempted from the Safe Water Drinking Act, by the 2005 Energy Policy Act of 2005.”

But poisoned wells and minor earthquakes are worth it because natural gas will have less of an impact on greenhouse gases than coal or oil. Except, maybe it won’t. “The problem with this analysis,” writes Leggett in Earth Times, “is that it is typically, and usefully, short-sighted. The total effect on greenhouse gas emissions are more complicated than just comparing combustion efficiencies. You need to look at the full life cycle of all emissions from extracting, transporting and using a fuel. That’s what a Cornell University professor did. And shockingly, over a 20-year timescale, shale gas has a higher greenhouse gas footprint than coal and oil.

“That’s because of the conveniently forgotten role of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, which is released during shale gas fracking.”

The reality is that natural gas – like nuclear power – is only nominally better than fossil fuels. Whatever benefit we get from mitigating climate change is given back by the damage done to the environment by the extraction required to gain access to these precious energy sources. The industry, of course, is fine with this because federal and state laws have been drafted to ensure that the big gas and oil firms retain as much of the revenue generated from their business as possible without having to pay for the damage done to public resources by their businesses.

A common sense energy policy would focus on improved efficiency, which means higher fuel standards and products (air conditioners, refrigerators, etc.) that use less energy and improved weather-proofing and insulation of houses and businesses. Expanded use of renewables like solar and wind. A larger change in our behavior that would allow us to drastically cut back on how much energy we use, such as local planning and federal and state transportation rules that focus development, expand mass transit opportunities and encourage less driving.

Finding new and more elaborate ways to drill for scarce resources will just replace one set of environmental problems with another. That seems to be just fine for the companies making money from despoiling the planet.

Hank Kalet is an editor for in New Jersey. Email

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2012

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