Five Rules for "Getting It Right" on Shale Gas Development

Los Angeles Times
January 3, 2012

Let’s Do This Right
Hal Harvey

Hal Harvey, the founder of the ClimateWorks Foundation, wrote an excellent Op-Ed piece in the Los Angeles Times earlier this month with five recommended steps for “getting it right” in developing the nation’s shale gas resources. (The column was later reprinted in the Dominion Post.) Mr. Harvey’s five points:

  1. No leaks in the system. Given the global warming potential of natural gas versus CO2 (about 25 times greater), it is essential that gas leaks throughout the extraction, production and distribution process be minimized.
  2. Use gas to shut down old coal. The median age of a coal plant in the U.S. is 44 years, and the older plants are the dirtier ones for which it does not make economic sense to install scrubbers. Perhaps a better way to state this point, at least in West Virginia, is that we need to make sure that the increased use of natural gas to generate electricity does not displace the use of renewable generating sources, such as wind and solar. While natural gas-fired electric generation is roughly twice as clean as coal-fired, it is obviously not as clean as wind and solar (even under a life cycle analysis that takes into account CO2 emissions over the entire production cycle of a resource.)
  3. Strong standards for wells, with effective monitoring and enforcement. In West Virginia, the legislature recently passed, and the Governor signed, the Horizontal Well Act. The Act delegates to the WV Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) the task of developing well casing standards, and the Act substantially increases permitting fees to generate sufficient revenue for DEP to monitor and enforce compliance with the rules. Time will tell whether the rules will be sufficient, and whether DEP will have adequate resources to enforce them.
  4. Don’t allow toxic streams [from the disposal of fracking fluids] poison the land. Again, the Horizontal Well Act in West Virginia includes measures to address this issue, but there is some disagreement as to whether these measures are adequate.
  5. Drill only where it is sensible. In other words, allow zoning of natural gas development so that it is kept out of ecologically important areas.

As Mr. Harvey states, “gas can do a great deal for our energy future” in terms of energy independence, environmental benefits versus coal, and economic development (i.e., jobs). But it is important that this resource be developed in a reasonable manner that balances the environmental impacts of shale gas development against these indisputable benefits. Mr. Harvey’s recommendations offer some wise guidance on how to strike this balance properly.