I recently agreed to join the board of directors of the Center for Sustainable Shale Gas Development, a new organization founded by energy companies and environmental groups to reduce the environmental impacts of natural gas production by hydraulic fracturing. I applaud the Environmental Defense Fund for helping to create this important initiative despite criticism by other environmental organizations.
I come to the issue of fracking with a long view that starts with the benefits to be gained from extracting natural gas from formations like the Marcellus Shale. The short- to medium-term benefits to Western Pennsylvania from relatively inexpensive and abundant natural gas are enormous.
I chaired the National Research Council Committee on the Health, Environmental and other External Costs and Benefits of Energy Production and Consumption, which produced the report "Hidden Costs of Energy" in 2010. We found that the non-climate environmental burden of coal-fired power plants was 100 times greater than those that burn natural gas.
Our study also showed that approximately $60 billion of annual hidden costs -- due almost entirely to the human health effects of air pollution -- were concentrated disproportionately in Western Pennsylvania due to our heavy reliance on electricity from coal. These external costs are being borne right now by me, by my wife (who has asthma), by my daughter (who has asthma), by my grandsons (one of whom has asthma) and by all the citizens of our region.
Burning natural gas instead of coal -- a substitution that has already started to occur -- will produce very large short-term environmental benefits from improved air quality. Burning natural gas also releases only half as much carbon dioxide to the atmosphere as coal, so this substitution also reduces the longer-term costs of climate change (although these benefits are notoriously difficult to quantify.)
Western Pennsylvania stands to gain economically from the development of shale gas as well. In addition to direct economic and employment benefits, there are potential "downstream" benefits from the use of gas and byproducts as feedstock. Especially intriguing for our region is the growth of manufacturing that uses petrochemicals. Proximity to inexpensive supplies and to manufacturing technology innovation at universities like mine could be a major game-changer, even attracting back to the United States companies that left years ago for countries with low labor costs.
All that said, I worry about the environmental costs of fracking. Trained as a water resources engineer, I'm especially concerned about the impacts on water systems, both surface water and groundwater. Research by my colleagues at Carnegie Mellon leads me to believe that the known impacts can be managed and mitigated if producing companies follow best practices for well-drilling and water use, treatment and disposal. The Center for Sustainable Shale Gas Development is focused on just these sorts of practices.
Air quality impacts will also be on CSSD's agenda. The Environmental Defense Fund has been especially effective in drawing our attention to gas leaks associated with natural gas production. Even a small percentage of leaks can put enough methane (a very potent greenhouse gas) into the air to negate the climate benefits of using gas as a substitute for coal. But there is simply no excuse for leaks; good practices can avoid the vast majority of them. This is another focus for CSSD.
CSSD cannot and will not do everything. An issue that I'm especially concerned about is the long-term, cumulative impact of extensive fracking -- as distinct from short-term impacts on relatively shallow aquifers due to poor fracking-well construction. This will require extensive research of the sort the Environmental Protection Agency should sponsor with a sense of urgency.
I have read and heard two types of objections to CSSD. The first, which comes from both environmental organizations and industry, criticizes its members for joining forces with the enemy. Us-vs.-them arguments like this are exactly why we have a dysfunctional Congress and, among other things, no EPA administrator despite having a superbly qualified nominee.
The second goes something like this: Making use of natural gas from shale will extend our dependence on fossil fuels, delaying -- perhaps disastrously -- our conversion to non-fossil energy sources. So ... no fracking. This strikes me as such a strange argument that I thought it was a joke the first time I heard it. But it's been repeated so many times that it seems to have become gospel -- and no longer funny.
Like it or not, we will be dependent on fossil fuels for decades -- period. Let's satisfy that dependence in ways that minimize environmental and social impacts while we aggressively develop non-fossil alternatives. Banning fracking would impose on Western Pennsylvania, and the country, an unacceptably high environmental burden.
Fracking is happening right now, on a large scale. If we want to minimize its environmental impact, as I do, we have to engage with those who are doing it.
John Gordon, my predecessor as dean of Yale University's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, wisely said that if you want to change the way things work, you have to influence the big levers in the world. The biggest levers shaping the future of our environment are the energy companies producing natural gas from the Marcellus Shale. Not engaging with them would be a lost opportunity of the highest order.
Jared L. Cohon is president of Carnegie Mellon University.