New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s statewide ban on high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a vindication for communities around the country that have been hit hard by unconventional natural gas production. For those in the energy industry who have shrugged off the environmental, health and safety concerns of fracking, Cuomo’s decision was the second rebuke in a little more than a month, following the recent vote to ban fracking in Denton, Tex. There have been a number of other bans and moratoriums across the country in the past couple of years: Mora County, N.M.; Boulder County, Colo.; and Dryden, N.Y., to name a few. These bans demonstrate what can happen when oil and gas producers erode public trust by brushing aside legitimate questions. Increasingly, regulators and the energy industry will be called upon to show that unacceptable risks from fracking can be minimized. Minimizing those risks requires strong, sensible regulation. Industry must finally recognize that it is in its own interest to work with regulators to make that happen.
I’ve seen firsthand the local impacts that have made fracking, as Gov. Cuomo put it, “probably the most emotionally charged issue that I have ever experienced.” As part of the U.S. Secretary of Energy’s Advisory Board on shale gas in 2011, I saw that fracking’s environmental impacts are real and important health issues remain unresolved. In rural Pennsylvania, I met a mother who told me she had been forced to leave her family farm because of severe air pollution from shale gas wells. The pollution had made her young son ill. He was staying with friends; she was living out of her car. And due to natural gas operations in Pinedale, Wyo., the town of 2,000 residents has had to cope with smog rivaling that found in Los Angeles.
In the years since our panel offered a comprehensive set of recommendations to reduce environmental and health risks, demonstrable progress has been made in many states. Texas and Ohio have overhauled their well integrity rules. A majority of producing states have adopted rules requiring disclosure of frack fluid chemicals. And leading states like Wyoming, Ohio and Colorado are tackling air emissions head on — including the first-in-the-nation comprehensive methane regulation adopted this year in Colorado. But those are the stand-out exceptions. For the most part, state and federal governments haven’t moved far or fast enough. For example, our panel emphasized the need to address the cumulative impacts of drilling and production that can overwhelm communities and damage ecosystems even when individual operators are acting responsibly. That level of oversight isn’t in place anywhere right now. No state has comprehensive rules, and many fall woefully short of what’s needed. That has led to corrosive distrust by the public, and distrust led to the New York ban and others like it.
Even though additional states and municipalities may well restrict drilling, the United States will continue to produce and consume vast quantities of natural gas. The Environmental Defense Fund and many other organizations are working hard to accelerate the shift to clean, renewable energy sources, but I don’t expect to see the country break its dependence on fossil fuels anytime soon. If the nation moved to 100-percent renewable electricity tomorrow, we would celebrate — but it would not stop production of natural gas. Two-thirds of all natural gas produced in the United States is used for manufacturing and direct heating and cooling. As long as other states are fracking — and more than 20 currently are — it will be necessary to continue the work to get strong rules in place to protect communities and ecosystems.
These risks are not simply a matter of local air and water pollution. Natural gas is mostly methane, a greenhouse gas more than 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide over 20 years. The enormous amounts of methane leaking from the natural gas supply chain — much of it from producers — make this both a national and international concern. This is why all eyes in industry and the environmental community are now on the White House. The administration is poised to issue new rules limiting methane emissions from oil and gas production, part of an interagency strategy launched last March. In my view, shared by public health advocates, these standards must be mandatory and they must cover the tens of thousands of existing wells already in operation — not just the new ones.
Fixing the methane problem makes business sense too. Studies show the industry is wasting almost $2 billion worth of gas a year due to leaks, venting and flaring. According to a report by ICF International, we could cut 40 percent of methane emissions over five years for just one penny per thousand cubic feet of produced gas. If the EPA tries to make do with halfhearted regulation, it will fail to control up to 90 percent of emissions and offer further evidence to the public that nothing short of a ban can protect us. That would be a wasted opportunity for leadership, one that puts at risk the undeniable economic benefits of the shale oil-and-gas boom.
I and many others believe that natural gas can help provide an exit ramp from reliance on coal and a step toward truly clean electricity generation. Powering our cities completely with wind, solar and other forms of renewable energy would be one of the most profound transformations of our century, closing the door on an era when turning on a light switch meant contributing to dirty air and a dangerously unstable climate. But until utility-scale energy storage becomes available, for example, we will likely need natural gas to provide some of our electricity in late afternoons, when solar power wanes and demand increases. Natural gas has the potential to play a critical role in our transition to clean energy, but only if it is done right.
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