The Natural Gas Industry Is Its Own Worst Enemy

Anyone who thinks “old media” is dead should have spent this week with me in Washington, DC.  Virtually everywhere I went folks were discussing the articles in the New York Times this week on the water pollution issues associated with natural gas development.  Although ProPublica has done an excellent job of covering the many environmental issues associated with shale gas development for more than a year, there still is nothing like a front page story in the New York Times to get the attention of policymakers in Washington.

Of course, the New York Times tale of water quality regulators seemingly asleep at the switch, or worse, actually hiding data and findings, is a story sure to catch anyone’s eye.  And in the days leading up to the Academy Awards, where “Gasland” was competing for the best documentary award, hydraulic fracturing seemed to be everywhere in the media, and all of it bad news stories.  Flaming water faucets are an image hard to resist or dismiss.

But as the flurry of media attention begins to die down as the week comes to a close, we are left with two simple truths to reflect upon.  The first is that America is awash in natural gas, and this promises to be a good thing both in terms of national energy security and air quality, at least in comparison to coal, which is America’s other abundant domestic energy resource.  (Yes, we actually have a fair amount of oil, too, but even the biggest boosters of domestic production concede the days of America being oil self-sufficient are long gone).  The second simple truth is that the vast majority natural gas industry is squandering this opportunity through a combination of reckless indifference and sloppy production practices.

No one should give either state or federal regulators a free pass on failures to act aggressively to enforce existing oil and gas production regulations, or act equally quickly to revise regulations where they clearly are failing to protect public health and the environment in the onslaught of natural gas production in what IHS Cambridge Energy Resource Associates (IHS CERA) calls the “Shale Gale.”  But focusing all of our ire on the regulators’ failures gives the natural gas producers a perverse excuse.  For an example of this, see my post two weeks ago, where I took an industry lawyer to task for making the claim that regulators were at fault for failing to tell natural gas producers that it is a bad idea to use diesel fuel as a hydraulic fracturing fluid.  As if someone needs to be told that injecting diesel fuel into the ground might be a bad idea!

So, by all means, put the heat on the federal Environmental Protection Agency and your state environmental regulators, and hold Congress and state legislatures accountable for providing the resources needed to have good regulations and good enforcement.  But please save some of your indignation for those gas producers who are failing to come to grips with the issues of the day.  Natural gas producers know better than anyone what is in the water that is produced during the natural gas production process, and no one should let them get away with claiming otherwise.  Sadly, unlike a few of their more progressive colleagues, many natural gas producers fail to understand that they have an affirmative obligation to minimize the possibility that contaminated water causes harm to public health and the environment.  And even worse, far too few of them take proactive steps to reduce air and water pollution from their production processes – steps that actually could save them money in the long run. 

The industry seems more inclined to operate by the principle that “haste makes waste.”  More than anything else, what the New York Times articles demonstrate is that, taken as a whole, the natural gas production industry is simply failing to hold itself accountable for adhering to the highest common sense standards of environmental stewardship.  And unless and until the natural gas industry does, don’t expect any good news stories about natural gas in either old or new media.

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One Comment

  1. Cat
    Posted March 15, 2011 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    A very good read. There ought not be a need to legislate commonsense.

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