Shale Gas: Not the Wise Choice for Pennsylvania

I was asked to submit this piece by the Northeast Pennsylvania Energy Journal, a pro-fracking magazine funded entirely by gas industry ads that’s inserted in our local newspapers. The piece will be printed with an industry representative’s counter argument that shale gas is good for Pennsylvania and the climate. From

Shale Gas: Not the Wise Choice for Pennsylvania

by Alex Lotorto, Community Organizer, Energy Justice Network

Shale gas has certainly been one of the most clever industrial undertakings in Pennsylvania history, combining deep horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing, massive gas transport infrastructure, and a sprawling supply chain. It’s clever, but is it wise?

If we are seeking both a resilient economy and a healthy environment, we can’t accept that they are mutually exclusive ambitions. We must urgently confront that challenge by not squandering opportunities like the pursuit of permanent, clean energy industries.

However, in the last decade, politicians have partnered with the oil and gas barons to steer our Commonwealth down a path we should all find familiar.

Our Past

Originally, it was timber barons who laid waste to our forests without regard for sustainable forestry or townsfolk who relied on the depleting supply of hardwoods. Sustained yield logging allowed Penn’s Woods to regenerate, but we still lack the horticultural diversity and old growth that once spanned our borders.

Over a century ago, we faced unbridled industrial expansion in the coal, oil, and steel industries. Workers fought hard to win basic safety standards, better wages, and an end to abusive labor practices. Mine fires rage on and millions of gallons of acid mine drainage flow into our watersheds daily. Unplugged oil and gas wells pock the landscape of western Pennsylvania.

In the latter 20th century, globalization sent textiles and manufacturing overseas. Plant closures racked the conscience of my parents’ generation who labored believing their children would enjoy more prosperity than ever before. We’re left with shuttered factories and brownfields where crews often find hazardous waste burials leeching into our soils.

Despite our troubled past, Pennsylvania remains abundantly beautiful and our people, resilient.

Our Present

In the 21st century, the shale gas industry assures us they will be different. They claim they will employ Pennsylvanians for generations to come and that their environmental impact is diligently mitigated.

Given our history, it sounds like a fool’s errand. We are wed to a temporary extraction industry that relies on volatile methane prices, that requires trillions of dollars to build out, and has accrued thousands of violations cited by our enforcement agencies.

The gas industry claims that prosperity abounds in northeast Pennsylvania. That may be true for some, but state records show the percent of children who qualify for free or reduced lunch programs has increased in all Susquehanna County school districts since fall 2008 while 860 Marcellus shale wells were drilled there during the same period.

As the shale gas barons focus more on exporting gas for overseas demand, Pennsylvania is more reminiscent of a Third World extraction colony than a Commonwealth.

Our Changing Climate

Shale gas is also at the center of one of the most critical issues of my generation: climate change.

A comprehensive report, “Climate Change: Evidence & Causes” by the US National Academy of Sciences and The Royal Society, was released in February. It provides a foundation in climate science and the consequences of man-made production of greenhouse gases. It concludes that humans are the primary cause of the planet’s rising average temperature, resulting in more extreme weather patterns.

Methane, the primary product of shale gas production, is incredibly more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, at least 72 times more over a 20-year time horizon, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Research from Cornell University, “Methane and the greenhouse-gas footprint of natural gas from shale formations”, has shown that production and distribution, combined with the use of shale gas, produces more greenhouse gasses than coal or oil.

The US Environmental Protect Agency’s Gas Star program develops best practices to reduce emissions, but rules curtailing gas flaring, tank venting, and pipeline blowdowns have been delayed to oblige industry lobbyists. Issues like monitoring and remediating methane leaks from wells and pipelines over time also seem insurmountable.

Our Opportunities

I believe we can do better than shale gas in Pennsylvania. I also believe that our society can innovate our way toward solutions as we have in fields spanning medicine, technology, and civil engineering.

Energy Justice Network supports a zero emission, zero waste future through reduction, efficiency, and clean energy development. A December 2012 University of Delaware study, “Cost-minimized combinations of wind power, solar power and electrochemical storage, powering the grid up to 99.9% of the time”, found that clean energy could fully power Pennsylvania’s electric grid by 2030 – cheaply and without government subsidies.

As we shift energy sources, we will need a policy of a “just transition”. In that vision, communities that rely on dirty energy industry are sought out for new green job opportunities, a robust safety net provides workers with re-training, trade union apprenticeships are bolstered, and project labor agreements ensure living wages.

Our colleges and universities, full of engineers, budding entrepreneurs, and skilled trades workers, could nurture a green economy here. Our aging homes and buildings could be made more energy efficient. Our intrastate public transit dreams could materialize. Our plants could be re-tooled to manufacture wind turbines, solar panels, and electric car components. Our electric grid could be improved to transmit and store electricity more efficiently. Our agriculture, tourism, recreation, timber, and construction industries could thrive once again.

Moving Forward

These proposals require redirected investment and political support to be fruitful.

We can’t afford to send thousands of hours of research, millions of manhours, and trillions of development dollars downhole into the shale. Climate experts warn that we should not delay. In fact, the only ingredient missing for a just transition to be realized is political will.

We must break the cycle of abuse from industry barons that has burdened us for generations. This year, I hope our communities, candidates, and voters alike will pursue wiser choices than shale gas.

 Image: Power Shift Shalefield Tour, ExxonMobil drilling operation, October 2013