Just so much gas
April 28, 2011 —
“As long as it’s done safely.” It’s a caveat we’ve all heard many times in pronouncements supporting gas drilling.
The desire for safety is certainly not something we would disagree with, but we do have a problem with the way this phrase is used. It is tossed off as a minor corollary to the basic assumption that natural gas drilling is a great idea. Actually gaining assurance that modern drilling techniques in unconventional shale formations will, or even can be done safely, is treated as a kind of footnote.
But until and unless we have amassed reliable evidence on the matter, lauding gas drilling “as long as it’s safe” is like saying “we think natural gas drilling is a good idea, so long as it is a good idea.” If it is not safe, it’s not a good idea; and finding out whether it is or is not requires more than a catchphrase that can be jumped over in our haste to get down to business.
Anyone who really cared about safety would want to examine comprehensive scientific evidence before making any decisions. So far, no such studies on the safety of drilling in unconventional shale formations have been completed. Yet the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) has been planning to release final regulations, and commence permitting, without them. In fact, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s statement last week that he might sue the DRBC if it proceeds without scientific studies is one of the first signs we have seen that somebody in authority is taking the idea of safety seriously.
But it’s still not clear that the studies that have been proposed—one by the USGS, under the aegis of the DRBC, and one by the EPA—even if completed, would address all the questions that would have to be answered if we truly wanted to make drilling conditional upon safety. What counts as safe, anyway? Safe to what, or whom? To water, air, human health, ecosystems, farms, infrastructure? What metrics should we use, and will those metrics measure our safety in the long as well as the short run—say, from the increased leukemia rates that are known to result from high benzene concentrations in the air? If people on fixed incomes become homeless because an influx of out-of-area workers pushes rents up, are they “safe?” If exploiting natural gas rather than investing in sustainable energy leads to a few more degrees of planetary warming and a few million more climate refugees, should that be part of the safety equation?