Clean, Cheap, and out of Control: Why Natural Gas Could Be the Fuel of the Future, and How the Industry Could Blow It All Up

By Zwick, Jesse | The Washington Monthly, May-June 2011 | Go to article overview

Clean, Cheap, and out of Control: Why Natural Gas Could Be the Fuel of the Future, and How the Industry Could Blow It All Up


Zwick, Jesse, The Washington Monthly


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A few years ago, land agents representing natural gas companies began knocking on doors throughout Pennsylvania and upstate New York offering residents vast sums for the right to drill on their land. One such resident was filmmaker Josh Fox, who owns property close to the Delaware River in Milanville, Pennsylvania. Torn by the nearly hundred-thousand-dollar deal presented to him, he decided to learn all he could about the revolution going on within the natural gas industry and to make a documentary about what he learned.

Fox discovered first that his land was atop the Marcellus Shale reserve, a formation of shale rock larger than Greece and potentially containing more cubic feet of natural gas than any single site on earth except the South Pars field in Iran. New drilling technologies--commonly called hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking"--made it possible to exploit these vast reserves for the first time. As he soon discovered, however, the process was not without some grave environmental risks.

Fox traveled across the country talking to landowners who had signed away their mineral rights and allowed drilling for natural gas on their land. Many reported that their groundwater wells had been contaminated and their health compromised. In the film's most memorable scene, a man from Colorado takes a match to his running kitchen tap and sparks a ball of flame. "I smell hair," the man chuckles, before admitting, "that one was kind of spooky."

Last year, Fox's documentary, called Gasland, won a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Aired repeatedly on HBO and public television, it soon elevated fracking to a major issue, especially in New York. There, the state legislature had recently passed a bill enlarging the maximum possible "spacing unit" for gas wells, effectively allowing the industry to implement its controversial new drilling techniques. In response, residents began raising questions about what the effects would be on upstate tourism and on New York City's water supply, which comes from areas where gas drilling was expected to be intensive.

Facing an outpouring of concern from their constituents, state legislators scrambled in the waning days of 2010 to pass a moratorium on natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale. The state's outgoing governor, David Patterson, refused to sign the legislation. But he issued an executive order that placed a moratorium on the most modern and productive practices now used to extract natural gas, including not just high-volume hydraulic fracturing, but horizontal drilling. The effect has been to block virtually all new gas drilling in New York's sizable portion of the Marcellus until the state issues a revised environmental impact assessment sometime in mid-2011.

Beyond then, the fate of the industry remains unclear. In the early spring of 2011, the New York Times concluded a three-part investigative series that raised alarms about the discharge of wastewater used in the fracking process into rivers, including the Monongahela, which supplies Pittsburgh's drinking water. Though the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has reported finding no threatening amounts of radioactivity in rivers downstream from gas drilling fields, it is also considering more stringent disclosure of the chemicals used in fracking. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, meanwhile, has documented the presence of potentially dangerous chemicals in thirty-nine wells in a Wyoming community surrounded by gas drilling and, over the strident objection of the industry, is currently engaged in a major new study that will look more comprehensively at the possible environmental threats posed by gas drilling.

So far, the drama over gas drilling might seem like a straightforward victory of the environmental movement over further exploitation of fossil fuels. But the view among national environmental organizations has been decidedly more nuanced. …

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