In Some Regions, Fracking Opponents Push Back Hard
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.