In "Promised Land," the new movie set in rural Pennsylvania where a big company is looking to drill for natural gas, the main character played by Matt Damon acknowledges to a crowd gathered in a school gym that there are real environmental risks associated with Marcellus Shale drilling.
Those risks and whether taking them is worth the financial or, yes, even the environmental rewards that gas development could bring form the backdrop of the movie. A more ambiguous issue the movie leaves unaddressed is how Americans make choices every day by enjoying a lifestyle that relies heavily on fossil fuels, often imported from other countries, including the United Arab Emirates, whose media company was among those funding "Promised Land."
The reality is that energy development and use have impacts that are not always fully realized, yet each and every one of us benefits every day from these resources, whether they be natural gas, coal, oil or renewables. Those fuels make it possible to drive cars, heat our homes, run factories and turn on the lights without much thought.
Whether a corporation that descends upon a small town to buy up drilling rights is defensible is one question, but not one that addresses the choices that we as a country have to make about where we want to get our energy and what that means for our economy.
No one doubts that America must move toward a more sustainable energy portfolio. But achieving long-term sustainability without wrenching economic disruption may require new supplies of hydrocarbons in the near term to transition toward a low-carbon energy diet, such as wind and solar power, and the deployment of new technologies that ongoing research will likely offer. Infrastructure for renewable energy will take decades to build out and we now have an opportunity to use domestic shale gas resources as a means to wean ourselves off our carbon-heavy habits.
Development of natural gas reserves not only offers a financial return for companies investing their capital, but gas is also a reliable source of energy that makes the American lifestyle possible. Its development is a source of local jobs and income for thousands of Pennsylvania landowners, as well as new revenue for communities, businesses and the government through the commonwealth's newly implemented impact fee.
Development of the Marcellus Shale, the 95,000-square-mile area that stretches from New York to Virginia, crossing Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, also increases the possibility of greater independence from foreign sources of energy for the United States. More than a third of the gas in the United States comes from shale, a number that is expected to increase to more than 50 percent by 2035. This has allowed Pennsylvania to now export large amounts of domestic gas to cities in the Northeast that only a few years ago had expected to import natural gas from foreign countries.
Natural gas is a cleaner-burning fuel than coal, and the process of drilling for it results in many fewer environmental impacts than coal mining. For those who say there are no environmental rewards, the U.S. Energy Information Administration recently reported that the amount of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere in the United States has fallen to its lowest level in 20 years. This reflects not only the recent economic downturn but also the rapid displacement of coal by natural gas in the electrical generation industry. Natural gas releases about 45 percent less carbon dioxide than coal when combusted.
It is also worth noting that gas combustion releases no mercury and very little sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide into the atmosphere, all of which degrade the air we breathe. A shift to gas could positively affect U.S. energy policy as well as slow the rate at which carbon dioxide is released to the atmosphere, which is significant considering that 2012 was the hottest year on record in the United States.
The risks and questions associated with development of natural gas have been widely publicized -- chemicals used by industry to hydraulically fracture shale, the potential for water quality impacts by spills, groundwater impacts in private water wells by stray gas, increased truck traffic in rural areas, air quality problems, and forest and habitat fragmentation. While regulations, research and innovations in technology are being used to address these issues, there is still room for improvement when it comes to dealing with safety, environmental protection, regulation enforcement and tax revenues.
The public and companies alike are seeking new ways to produce cleaner energy in large enough quantities to meet our needs. Likewise, developers are finding ways to make everything from cars to heating systems more efficient. But in the meantime, hydrocarbon fuels are responsible for a large share of the conveniences that are part of the American lifestyle, including the making and enjoying of movies.
Taking a black-and-white stance against natural gas development by suggesting that the American gas industry lies to manipulate the public, as was done in "Promised Land," doesn't address the environmental or economic issues embedded in our country's energy choices or begin to offer ways to manage an industry that is taking hold in Pennsylvania.
Terry Engelder is a professor of geosciences and David Yoxtheimer is an extension associate with the Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research in the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute at Penn State University.