Hearing an Objective Voice on Hydraulic Fracturing

I had the good fortune of stumbling onto a refreshingly objective voice on hydraulic fracturing this week. Tom Wilber, a journalist and author covering Marcellus and Utica shale gas development, gave a talk on the subject of his new book on the matter, Under the Surface. While he wasn’t much of speaker, he related a view of shale gas development that was nuanced with the collective insight of many interviews with ordinary citizens on both sides of the issue.

Now I’ve heard both sides of the matter loud and clear. It can be done safely! How are you going to protect our drinking water?! I need the extra income from signing a lease!!! WHAT IS THE REAL CARBON FOOTPRINT? Hydraulic Fracturing and natural gas development is obviously a hotly contested political battleground. Public Relations campaigns for energy companies like Chevron or Halliburton would have the public believe that hydro-fracking is ultimately harmless. They show us pictures of lush green meadows covering reclaimed drilling sites. Activists like Josh Fox, the writer and director of Gasland, paint a much uglier image of hydro-fracking. This one instead focuses on dieing pets and flammable faucets.  Both sides are exaggerated and distorted, so needless to say, I welcomed listening to the quiet, well-informed voice of an investigative journalist and author that cut right down the middle.

Tom Wilber, in his talk, drew the distinction between Marcellus Shale drilling in Pennsylvania and in New York. While in New York, with the state’s history of nature conservation, regulators have halted all permits for shale gas drilling until reviews of environmental impacts can be completed, Pennsylvania has a history of resource exploitation and has taken a “learn-to-regulate-as-we-go” approach to hydro-fracking. And despite industry claims of safety and environmentalist claims of contamination, the jury still seems (to me, at least) to be out on whether hydraulic fracturing is safe for the preservation of a beautiful and healthy environment.

As most well-informed people tend to do, Wilber did not make any definite predictions about the development of gas extraction from the Marcellus and Utica shale formations. Instead, he envisioned two possible scenarios. In the first, the price of natural gas continues to rise over the next few years. This would create a potential fortune, and the influx of cash that developers would invest in obtaining these resources would likely overcome environmental objections by promising landowners, townships, and state regulators an enormous pay-day. In this scenario, a perfect storm of high price and low environmental resistance would lead to heavy development of Marcellus and Utica shale gas in New York. In the second scenario, the price of natural gas would not rise high enough to encourage an influx of development dollars before environmental concerns became codified in regulatory law. This would permanently limit the future of hydro-fracking in New York State.

Markets and politics both behave in cycles. Cycles of price determine whether or not the gas will be worth developing. Cycles of public support for environmental protection govern the precautions that regulators will be willing to take. As the cycles fluctuate, it is most likely that some middle ground between the extreme two scenarios will be reached, but if a high price for natural gas coincides with a low point in public environmental concern, significant shale gas development could change the landscape of New York forever.

To learn more, check out Tom Wilber’s blog at tomwilber.blogspot.com or buy his book, Under the Surface.

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