A sensible shale gas policy

The resource could be a great boon to Maryland, but only if it's exploited in a prudent manner

November 15, 2010|By Mark Olsthoorn

The Wild West scene playing out in western Pennsylvania holds warnings for Maryland on the need to manage a precious, finite resource like shale gas with great care. If you haven't heard about this energy source yet, you will soon.

Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and other Appalachian states all have a rich vein of Marcellus shale, buried thousands of feet underground. Locked in the shale is a huge quantity of natural gas. Combining two technologies — hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling — allows energy companies to free these valuable reserves. As Pennsylvania's experience shows, businesses are eager to do it. Some have applied for permits to drill test wells in Maryland to gauge the promise here.

The questions for Maryland and other Marcellus shale states are under what conditions and how quickly to allow them to extract the gas.

Pennsylvania is granting permits, although too slowly for the industry, which promises jobs, prosperity and clean energy. But their excitement prompts visions of an Old West mining town, roaring to life in a flash, deserted and denuded a couple years later.

In Pennsylvania and other Marcellus states, including Maryland, shale gas can be a boon — a catalyst of a clean, sustainable energy sector that creates lasting employment — as long as states don't buy into the boom-town mentality. Controlled growth, embedded in a comprehensive plan for a clean energy sector, offers the best chance for states to see the economic benefits.

At a recent industry meeting in Pittsburgh, "drill-baby-drill" could be heard between the lines. "Wow," is how conference president Jack Lafield characterized Marcellus prospects. Oil and gas company speakers outbid each other with projections of high, higher and highest production rates in the region within the next decade. The curves only went up. "There's gas for another 100 to 120 years," said Martin Fritz of EQT Midstream. "We should do a better job at selling it."

Unchecked, this approach risks quickly exhausting and wasting a valuable, irreplaceable resource.

Natural gas is the cleanest of fossil fuels, causing only half as much CO2 emissions as coal burned in a power plant. It's domestic, versatile and can enable a clean, sustainable energy sector. It's too good to waste.

But judging by public comments, how the gas of the Marcellus is going to be used seems of little concern to the industry, which denounces other, much-needed initiatives such as wind and energy efficiency.

A more integrative perspective is essential. Gas can provide the backup capacity for wind farms at the times the wind is not blowing. Gas can generate the cleaner electricity to propel electric cars. If you prefer fuel cell vehicles, gas can be your feedstock for hydrogen. Gradually replacing coal-fired power plants with more decentralized, gas-fired combined heat and power plants that serve this dual purpose can cut CO2 emissions drastically and enable super-efficient local district heating and cooling networks in urban areas.

In short, Marcellus gas can be a crucial enabler of sustainable innovations. At present, however, the industry risks flooding the market, keeping prices unsustainably low, and frustrating the development of other clean energy sources. States won't see the full promise of Marcellus shale gas unless it is embedded in a long-term energy strategy for the region.

In Pittsburgh, the industry hyped the jobs shale gas will bring, but those probably won't last long, nor go to Pennsylvanians. A full-throttle ramp up means experienced employees have to be brought in from out of state. Currently, 75 percent of workers on a Pennsylvania drilling rig are experienced professionals from Oklahoma and Texas.

By the time a regional economy of specialized services and suppliers matures and a skilled work force has developed, the production peaks; the gas is gone, sold for low prices to fuel inefficient cars or heat badly insulated buildings. A more gradual and better-guided development of Marcellus shale gas allows a local energy sector and work force to arise with better chances of long-term employment.

If states in the Marcellus region — including Maryland — want to get the maximum return from their natural capital, in terms of long-term employment and revenue, they would do well to make shale gas production part of an integrated policy for a sustainable energy sector and economy, allowing the best practices for drilling and containment of spills and leaks, monitoring of impacts, work force training, etc., to take place before the drilling explosion.

Mark Olsthoorn is a researcher at the University of Maryland's Center for Integrative Environmental Research. His e-mail is molsth@umd.edu.

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