Sunday, August 18, 2013

Looking Past Natural Gas

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Shale drilling for natural gas is just getting started. If it proceeds anything like the fond hopes of some, hundreds of thousands of acres will be involved, requiring about 30 acres for each well pad and connections. In Appalachia, 100,000 square miles are underlain by the Marcellus, Utica and various Devonian shales now being tapped. Only agriculture and forestry are more land-intensive.

Shale drilling removes from other use the land it utilizes, much the same as other heavy industry, much of it forever. Excavation removes the surface down to the subsoil, then covers it with crushed stone thick enough to support heavy trucks over the drill pad and roads in any weather, with drainage around these. Wide lanes through forest are required for pipeline right of way. Each site becomes a potential brownfield, with contamination by machine operation, chemicals used in drilling and from chemicals that come up from the depths of the earth.

The return on shale drilling investment depends on dicey economics. Like the coal industry before it, and to a lesser degree the old oil and gas industry, many costs are “externalized,” that is, pushed off onto others, largely unrecognized except by those “others.” There is much damage to people and to future productive capacity of the land. A farmer like myself, living in the midst of a deep mining area, a strip-mined area and in the midst of older drilling, is more aware of both what has happened and what is going on. Here are some of the most grievous effects today:
* Land degradation is largely ignored. Land is the most fundamental asset to life. Sometimes a nominal fee is paid to the landowner as “damage,” but has no relation to the long-term value of what is destroyed. The landowner only has one life, but what is destroyed is lost to all life forever. As they say, “no one is making any new land.”
* Loss of ground water and stream function is recognized as a loss, but precedent in law gives the driller huge advantages, much of it dating from earlier mineral extraction, but also coming from the “Halliburton Loophole.” Not much goes on from year to year underground. There are many layers of rock punctured and disrupted as the drill goes down a mile. If water is good for years and then goes bad shortly after drilling occurs, it should be assumed the drilling did it.
* Health of residents is handled in a similar way: no precautions, and complaints are ignored. The state of Pennsylvania tacitly recognizes possible health effects from drilling by making it harder for doctors to communicate with patients and other doctors, an attitude derived from the industry position “it’s all in their heads.”
* West Virginia has something like 59,000 abandoned and unplugged wells. Today the plugging fee is filed with the permit. But with the sinking value of the dollar, will the fee do the job when the well is abandoned, or will many shale wells will be left unplugged? Will the public have to pay the cost of plugging them, or the damage be left with the public? If the past is any guide to the future, this can be expected to happen.
* What about irritation of people living in the neighborhood with 24-hour noise, light, smells, traffic congestion? It is a real cost put onto those who only want a quiet, healthy life.
* Ecoservices is a name given to uses of land such as hunting, fishing, recreation, aesthetics, the travel industry and the retirement industry. Dollar values are commonly put on these industries. Other ecoservices are removal of carbon dioxide from the air and production of pure water. Although indefinitely ongoing like agriculture and forestry, these land functions are reduced forever by shale drilling as presently conducted and are not counted on the debit side.
* Road replacement cost, new types of accidents, fire protection, court house record room cost, extra police, enforcement costs for regulations are put off on the body politic. It is customary to support promising new industry, but it is a cost of the industry paid by the public, a sort of investment for use of the driller by the public.
This list is lengthy. Profits from shale drilling are enough to absorb huge legal costs characteristic of the industry and the very great expense of what the Chinese call “reputation management” through advertising, PR and lobbying. But not apparently, to pay the costs listed here.
We must accept that since the Industrial Revolution, human actions have gradually become the main driver of global environmental change. The atmosphere and Earth’s resources have long been thought of as infinite, one as a dump for exhaust fumes, the other as a source for minerals, particularly for energy production. This must soon change.
Today the human population is a little over 7 billion. Somewhere around 30 years from now it will be 9 billion. Demographics are inexorable. Even great wars, famine, plagues and purges hardly make a noticeable change in the world population graph. We will need the land services. Expectations are rising, too, being fueled by communication in the poor parts of the world and by advertising in the rich parts.
Laughing at climate change and putting hundreds of millions of dollars into climate change denial is perhaps the most grievous cost of energy mineral extraction. Even if one accepts the idea that we can go ahead and burn carbon because natural gas produces only 60 percent as much carbon dioxide as coal, expansion forever is foolish.
The earth is large, but not infinite. Paradigm change must come. We must balance the sheet for energy technology. A “bridge to nowhere” is not what our children and our grandchildren and their children deserve.