Natural gas industry should welcome oversight
By Timothy E. Wirth and Alice Madden
Posted: 03/28/2011 01:00:00 AM MDT
"Gasland" didn't win an Oscar, but the controversy over the production practices of the natural gas industry, the focus of that documentary, rages on.
ProPublica, an independent, non-profit investigative journalism initiative, has issued a number of recent reports on potential public health and environmental impacts, and most recently a series in The New York Times pointed to apparently inadequate treatment of wastewater from gas production sites in Pennsylvania, as well as political interference with regulators at the Environmental Protection Agency.
It doesn't have to be this way.
The sudden abundance of low-cost natural gas from deep underground shale formations is a gift that can increase U.S. energy production, improve our energy security, allow the shutdown of our oldest, dirtiest coal-fired power plants, and thus reduce the air pollution that threatens both the health of millions of Americans and the global climate.
Yet land owners and environmental advocates in the Northeast are understandably concerned about the arrival of a major extraction industry and its talk about hydraulic fracturing, the Marcellus shale, and other specialized terms associated with the drilling boom. Precious landscapes and pristine water sources are threatened by trucks and drilling pads and ponds filled with contaminated, even radioactive wastewater.
The industry protests that it goes the extra mile to protect the environment — recycling its water, re-engineering its wells and ponds for safety, reporting the chemicals it is using when it drills. It says the horror stories in "Gasland" — leaking gas from water faucets and the like — are falsely attributed to their "fracking" process.
How is anyone to know the truth?
There's actually a simple, tried- and-true answer to that: get independent experts to monitor the industry's practices and ensure that what it says is true. States can set strong standards for gas production and enforce them vigilantly, supported by fees on producers.
The top gas producers have nothing to fear. The industry's best practices are protective of the water, land and air. Instead of trying to suggest that the public concerns are not real, or are trivial and can be ignored, industry leaders should come together around a recommended code of conduct (e.g., on water disposal, chemical disclosure, well integrity, and operational footprint) and then work closely with regulatory authorities to make sure everyone follows the code. It's the bad actors that will get penalized, and that's in the interest of the industry as well as the public.
The natural gas industry has spent many millions of dollars over the years establishing its product as a clean fuel, and not without reason — natural gas burns much cleaner than coal in power plants or oil in transportation. But all that advertising will go up in smoke if the industry resists regulation and lets its worst performers define the fuel.
The gas industry's success in Colorado can serve as a model for what needs to happen in other states. First Gov. Bill Ritter reshaped the state regulatory commission and passed a tougher set of gas production rules. Then he turned to the legislature to pass the Colorado Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act, which is leading Xcel Energy to retire or retrofit 900 megawatts of coal-fired capacity. Xcel plans to replace or repower the plants with natural gas, renewables, and greater energy efficiency.
Politically, what happened was that the gas industry, the utility, and the environmental community came together around a common agenda. They began to learn and understand each other's positions and work together effectively to encourage the transition from coal to gas. This strategy could be replicated in other states.
We are at an energy crossroads today, and if the natural gas industry seizes the opportunities that are so clearly in front of it, it will help determine our nation's energy future for decades to come.
Gas can be a game-changer, nationally and globally — but in the United States the industry is poised on a knife-edge of public acceptance that could affect its license to operate for years to come. To be recognized as the clean alternative in power generation and transportation, and to reap the benefits of public policies that would reward such a fuel, the industry must choose the right path — one that is palpably in its own self-interest, in the interest of our national security and in the interest of our environmental future.
Former U.S. Sen. Timothy Wirth is president of the United Nations Foundation. Former state Rep. Alice Madden is the Wirth Chair in Sustainable Development at the University of Colorado.