Just so much gas
“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?
We also believe that anyone with more than a perfunctory interest in safety would be open to the possibility that the answer to the question “How can drilling be done safely?” might be “It can’t.” But in general, the official attitude seems to be: we don’t have the time or the money to find out whether this activity is safe, so let’s just cross our fingers and hope for the best. We have just seen the results of this type of “policy” in two calamities of global proportion: last year’s BP disaster and the recent nuclear catastrophe in Japan. And the failure of regulatory systems that enabled these disasters brings us to another problem: even if it is technically possible to drill safely, do we have the oversight and enforcement capabilities—and the political will—to ensure that safety?
A growing litany of incidents related to gas drilling, from The New York Times-documented problems with wastewater disposal to last week’s blowback accident in Bradford County, PA, suggests that the answer may be “no.” At the very least, safety is vulnerable to the whims of a state’s incumbent administration—making DRBC’s deference to the states in its proposed regulations that much riskier. Governor Tom Corbett, for instance, has effectively defanged Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) by giving his economic czar, an ex-industry man, the power to expedite any activities that might create jobs regardless of any other agency’s wishes. He has also issued an order forbidding the DEP from issuing violation orders against Marcellus Shale drillers without having them reviewed by one of his henchmen.
Until and unless we see officials truly grappling with the questions we have raised above, it’s hard to believe that they actually give a hang about safety, lip-service notwithstanding. Schneiderman has at least made a start. It would be nice to see others join him. President Obama, for example, extolled unconventional shale gas plays in a recent speech with the caveat “we have to make sure we’re doing it safely.” So, Mr. President, how about seeing to it that studies as to the safety of modern gas drilling in unconventional shale formations—and the regulators charged with overseeing it—are funded? How about a backup energy plan, in case it actually can’t be done safely? Because otherwise, your words are just so much, well, gas.