Natural Gas: Real Risks and Real Opportunities
Natural gas production has raised local and national concern about its consequences for the environment and public health. It’s a controversial topic—and it should be.
The environmental risks associated with the shale revolution are significant. Leaks and spills pollute water supplies. Wells and pipelines can damage forests, wetlands, and other habitat. Industrial-scale development can create safety hazards for rural communities. On top of all that, all long-term effects are yet to be seen.
At the same time, there are some undeniable benefits. The economic and security gains to the United States are substantial, including a domestic supply of low-cost energy. Chemical manufacturing jobs that rely on the natural gas industry can return to our shores.
Abundant shale gas has allowed the United States to shift away from coal to generate power. And since natural gas generates half the CO2 as coal, this shift is reducing greenhouse gas emissions. On the other hand, low-cost natural gas may also slow the transition from fossil fuels to renewable resources such as wind and solar power.
What’s an Environmentalist To Do?
One approach—in light of the environmental risks—is for environmentalists to just say “no” to the natural gas opportunity. But I doubt this is the best answer.
To be sure, there are some areas where oil and gas development should be opposed. But, the reality is that the shale revolution is already underway and growing. Just saying “no” likely means being disengaged and on the sidelines. Instead, I believe environmentalists should be asking “where and how?” Where can natural gas exploration occur safely? How can robust regulatory policy best be put in place to ensure sound environmental outcomes? How can we reap economic security as well as environmental benefits through natural gas production while avoiding environmental harm?
In my view, environmentalists need to engage with governments, local communities, and energy companies so that we can answer these questions fully and build the consensus to establish the regulatory framework needed to ensure satisfactory outcomes.
Clearly, natural gas production has to be done right. The chemicals used need to be less toxic, and leftover water from the process needs to be treated and recycled to prevent pollution. Wells and facilities must be secure so methane doesn’t seep into drinking water or the air. Finally, we must reduce the overall footprint to better protect habitat and communities. These improvements won’t happen all by themselves. Environmentalists need to get to work and build the necessary alliances and momentum to make them happen.
Finding Common Ground
In our case and for our part, TNC works with governments and shale gas companies in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Colorado, Wyoming and beyond to help them better plan the placement of roads, wells and pipelines to avoid destroying important habitat. We also help guide coordinated development plans and regulatory policies that encourage companies to share infrastructure and minimize their environmental impact. Likewise, our good friends at Environmental Defense Fund are doing great work with regulators and companies on the important topic of constraining potential methane leakage.
These efforts are one small example of how environmentalists can engage on tougher issues and seek common ground to meet the nation’s energy needs while ensuring the safety of lands, waters and communities.
In my view, it's clear that environmentalists need to fight for energy sources that have less impact on the environment. Of course, let's champion zero-carbon sources of power and the reduction of carbon emissions in the United States and around the world. But let’s also champion collaboration with partners—including unlikely ones—to improve energy practices and policies for people and nature.
Copyright Mark T.
President and CEO, The Nature Conservancy. Author of Nature's Fortune