Curtis Jones, Jr. has a certain way with words. “Sometimes we are the boils on the butt of progress,” the councilman said, speaking about government regulators at a forum on Marcellus Shale drilling last spring. Jones is leading a City Council effort to delay exploitation of gas resources in Pennsylvania until further study can be done on potential consequences, particularly within the Delaware watershed that provides Philadelphia with its drinking water.
The imagery of shale drilling is unfortunate: forcing a pipe deep into subterranean rock layers and emitting large quantities of salty liquid to break up the shale and release the gas trapped inside. But this is no rape of our environment; rather, it’s a consensual act of love between man and Earth, producing offspring in the form of a viable, relatively clean fuel source that we so desperately need.
At last spring’s forum, held at the Academy of Natural Sciences, Penn State Professor Terry Engelder outlined what he saw as the five biggest challenges facing the United States: national debt, the international trade imbalance, unemployment, oil wars and climate change. “Gas could overcome all five,” he said. At a time when the nation faces environmental, climatic, geopolitical and fiscal crises all related to our production and use of energy, a cleaner fuel source available right in our own backyard could be transformative.
Yet Philadelphia is stalling. Last week, Council held hearings on the potential dangers of shale drilling and passed a resolution supporting a three-year moratorium on new wells. There’s already a hold on drilling in the Delaware watershed, where any contamination from the highly toxic “frack water” used to create the gas wells could find its way into water supplies here in the city.
But the city’s efforts, veiled in concern about the environment, smack of energy-extraction nimbyism. We still use fossil fuels, but don’t want to bear any risks from obtaining them. Leave that to fishermen in the Gulf and soldiers in Iraq. Heck, how many watts did we burn at the Council hearing to light the room and power all the cameras and microphones, to say nothing of the fuel consumed by protestors driving in from across the state? By the very act of debate we show why we need shale gas so badly.
Desperate times call for bold measures, not more studies. The negative tradeoffs of shale drilling are nowhere near as devastating as scraping off a mountain-top to mine coal, or going to war to protect our oil supplies. Yes, there are safety concerns, but they can be addressed as long as we pay attention. “It’s not an inherently risky thing,” says Joseph Martin, a Drexel engineering professor who testified in favor of shale drilling at the Council hearing. With continuous monitoring, he says, the pipelines and well heads can be made secure—that’s five layers of steel and cement keeping frack water out of the ground until it’s deep inside the shale. “You have regulations, you have to be able to enforce them,” he says.
And in case of a disaster, the Water Department is set up to handle it. “We are highly prepared for anything coming down from upstream,” says PWD Manager for Planning & Research Chris Crockett. The city employs a filtration and treatment system that already removes all kinds of shit and nastiness from the Schuylkill and Delaware rivers. Water quality is measured at every step along the way, from hundreds of miles upstream to the point of output from faucets citywide. In the worst-case scenario, a major frack-water spill, the city can just shut down the river intakes until the danger has washed its way downstream. “If there is a problem, we’re going to be the first to sound the alarm,” Crockett says.
If we’re going to drive cars and heat houses in the city, it’s not fair to exclude Philadelphia’s watershed from energy production. In fact, sharing the risk is the best way to ensure that industry is held to a higher standard. The gas industry can buy or politic its way out of poisoning wells here and there in rural Pennsylvania, but with millions of eyes on the city’s water supplies the companies have a much bigger disincentive against cutting corners.
The salient point is that despite the risks, we still need energy. “It gets cold up here in the Northeast,” Martin says. “No one has come up with a way to make spaces warm up here without fossil fuel combustion in the basement. As a simple, practical matter, gas beats the hell out of everything else.”
It’s not the sexiest slogan to rally around—natural gas, less bad than oil and coal—but it’s the reality we face. Get the drills ready.
As Rebecca Roter stood on Broad Street, heavy clouds threatening rain overhead, she brandished a bottle of murky water labeled “Bradford County.” Her question was: Would you want to drink this? The answer from the dozens gathered outside the Doubletree Hotel yesterday, was a resounding “No fracking way.”
President Obama has given the Department of Energy 90 days to look at ways to improve the safety of drilling for natural gas. The Environmental Protection Agency has already started an extensive review of how drilling affects drinking water.