One the richest sources of natural gas in the country covers much of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. But some residents there, who are worried about potential health risks, are growing skeptical and fighting the growing drilling process known as fracking.
During the past three years, 140 communities along the Marcellus Shale formation have publicly opposed drilling. Their actions include zoning controls limiting the drilling technology, road regulations, short-term moratoriums, and in unusual cases outright bans, says Susan Christopherson, a Cornell University professor who is studying the economic impact of Marcellus Shale.
“Fracking is a bit like an FDA drug that’s never been through a test,” says Stephen Herzenberg, an economist and executive director of the Keystone Research Center. Thepolicy and research center focuses on Pennsylvania, where gas drilling has expanded.
In Ohio, there was a brief moratorium earlier this year on the injection of fracking waste fluids deep into shale formations, but no outright bans on the entire fracking technology, says Kari Matsko, director of the People's Oil & Gas Collaborative-Ohio.
Sometimes called hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking, the practice involves forcing pressurized water (containing chemicals) into shale formations to fracture the rock and release gas deposits. Fracking raises environmental issues because the practice requires lots of water. Opponents fear fracking can contaminate drinking water.
The energy industry disputes the potential risks, and stresses that shale gas has created jobs and lowered consumer fuel prices. The production of unconventional gas, including shale gas, supported more than 1 million jobs in 2010, and was forecast to grow to 1.4 million by 2015, according to a June 13, 2012 report by IHS Global Insight, an energy consultancy.
“When you look at the big picture, when you look at the numbers, the production numbers, the price numbers, the employment numbers, there is absolutely no doubt that this has had a fantastic impact on our country,” says Rayola Dougher, senior economic adviser for the American Petroleum Institute, which represents the petroleum and natural gas industry.
There’s no denying shale gas is creating jobs and reimagining America’s energy complex. But the topic is complex, with many stakeholders and agendas. The challenge is to strike a balance between energy profits, the desire for lower consumer fuel prices, job creation, and health and environmental issues, economists and community leaders say.
Just forecasting potential gas supplies is tricky controversial stuff, say experts on natural gas. Geologists and researchers disagree on whether the U.S. houses enough natural gas to last 100 years — a data point President Barack Obama used in his State of the Union speech in January.
Shale Gas: Prosperity or Peril?
As the U.S. economy slowly recovers, much of the fracking rhetoric has focused on jobs and energy independence. Developing the Marcellus couldcreate 37,572 new jobs annually in New York — where there’s now a drilling moratorium. That's according to a 2011 report by the Public Policy Institute of New York. In Pennsylvania in 2010, about 48,000 private sector jobs were created in Marcellus Shale-related sectors.
But as drilling activity progresses, questions persist about potential risks to drinking water and the broader environment. About 4.5 million gallons of water are required to fracture a typical deep gas well — the equivalent amount of water a golf course uses in 22.5 days.
Regional Economic Impact
“There are ways to ensure people’s groundwater is protected and that air quality is maintained without stopping fracking altogether,” says Jane Ard-Smith, head of Colorado Springs’s Sierra Club chapter. Portions of Colorado have high concentrations of active oil and gas wells.
The Environmental Protection Agency is studying fracking and its potential impact on drinking water resources. A first report on the study will be released in late 2012.
A 2010 documentary on Pennsylvania’s Delaware River Basin fanned safety and health concerns. The money shot in “Gasland” was a clip that showed faucet tap water, when exposed to a lighter, explode into a small fire ball. The industry disputes the health and safety issues raised in the film.
Beyond filmmaking, anti-fracking activists have turned to Facebookand the Internet to build support and share resources. Prominent drilling opponents include actor Mark Ruffalo, who has been using his Twitter account to promote action against New York state fracking.
Last week, New Yorkers Against Fracking protested in front of Governor Andrew Cuomo's office in Albany, N.Y. after reports he was considering limited drilling. The protest was among several throughout the state.
"We don't want to turn certain areas of New York into sacrificial guinea pigs," says John Armstrong, head of Frack Action, based in Albany, N.Y. Frack Action is among 130 groups in the larger organization, New Yorkers Against Fracking.
Another prominent group in Pennsylvania’s Delaware River Basin is DamascusCitizens.org. Collectively, community leaders are raising concerns about the long-term economic impact of shale gas to regional economies, including negative consequences for real estate markets.
“How many people from the Upper East Side [of Manhattan] are going to think about a second home in the Catskills or the Finger Lakes if there’s fracking anywhere nearby?” says Armstrong of Frack Action. “Some of these economies are already very depressed."
Beyond potential impact to home prices, new gas jobs don't always go to local residents. Drilling activity can affect infrastructure, including more traffic. Community budgets for education and police protection can get stretched, some economists say.
“There’s not enough information, there’s not enough testing,” says economist Herzenberg with the Keystone Research Center.
Long-term Economic Impact
Fracking ramped up during the 1990s after advances in horizontal-drilling techniques allowed workers to access mile-deep shale gas in multiple directions from a single well. Then in 2005, Congress exempted fracking from complying with federal laws governing safe drinking water and clean air.
The natural gas boom was on, and drillers moved to capitalize on the shale gas play. But the benefits of shale gas production can sometimes be short-lived for communities.
In northern Pennsylvania, energy companies already have shuttered some natural gas wells and moved to other regions, including eastern Ohio, with untapped reserves of both gas and oil. Small businesses that set up shop on the tail end of a well’s cycle are out of luck.
And fracking can displace other sectors, such as farming, leaving fewer industries for residents to fall back on, says Cornell's Christopherson. Local populations, seeking work, can shrink. Just look to past U.S. energy boom-bust cycles.
“While there have been projections of the number of jobs that might be created by natural gas drilling, they are only estimates, and there has been little analysis of the wide range of public costs associated with drilling,” says Christopherson. By focusing predominantly on job creation, “you miss what the implications are for regions,” she says.
For some Pennsylvania communities battling unemployment at around 10 percent, “people wanted this to be the goose that laid the golden egg," Herzenberg says.
But the energy industry is looking ahead, and sees shale gas as a road to energy independence.
“There are growing pains in different communities,” says Dougher of the American Petroleum Institute. “But I don’t think you can overestimate the potential impacts of our nation’s economic growth that this new technology is bringing to the marketplace.”
Meantime, in some pockets of Pennsylvania, the near-term dry-gas run has packed up and moved elsewhere.
“In the recession, people are looking for a fix. This is going to create jobs. They don’t want to think too hard about what the downside is,” Christopherson says. “The United States has a very short term memory.”