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In it for the short haul

September 22, 2011

As the national jobs situation continues to deteriorate, voices calling for gas drilling as the only way out of our local economic dilemma become all the more strident. But several recent studies suggest that if we rush into a gas drilling economy, it may be only to find ourselves rushing out again, with less to show for it, even in the short term, than has been commonly assumed—especially as compared to other avenues likely to offer better long-term solutions.

One important study whose impact, we feel, has not been fully recognized, is a new USGS estimate of the total gas reserves contained in the Marcellus Shale, which comes in at 83 trillion cubic feet. There has been some controversy as to whether this represents a massive increase, or a massive decrease, in the amount of recoverable gas assumed to be available. Industry advocates like The Wall Street Journal compared the number to the USGS’s 2002 estimate of two trillion cubic feet, thus hailing it as a 40-fold increase. Of course, nobody inside the industry or out has paid attention to that estimate for years. Terry Engelder, the Penn State geoscientist whose generous estimate of Marcellus reserves in January of 2008 played a key role in inspiring the current boom, has been using an estimate of 489 trillion since 2009. The U.S. Energy Information Agency, back in April, briefly increased its estimate from 410 to 844 trillion cubic feet. (It has now adopted the new USGS number.) Compared to these assumptions, the USGS number represents a drop off from 80% to 90%.

These reduced estimates not only have implications for the balance sheets of natural gas companies that have leased land for drilling, they also mean that the bust that can be expected from the boom-bust cycle of a natural-gas-driven economy will come that much sooner. To get a sense of perspective, the United States currently consumes about 24 trillion cubic feet of gas per year. Under the 489 trillion cubic foot assumption, one could argue that the Marcellus alone could provide 20 years of U.S. consumption. Under the 83 trillion cubic foot estimate, it can supply only about three and a half years worth.

Get thee to a copy machine!

The main point of my comment is to urge readers to print out lots of copies of this editorial and send it to Gov Cuomo and Gov Corbett urging them to read it carefully, along with all three reports referenced, and consider an immediate halt on shale gas drilling for all the reasons mentioned. We have the power to do better. The TRR editorialist is our wordsmith.

Send this analysis to the DRBC which is now on the brink of passing rules that will allow drilling to start all over the Delaware River Watershed (paula.schmitt@drbc.state.nj.us, carol.collier@drbc.state.nj.us). Send it to municipal leaders to support zoning ordinances in NY and PA (covered so well by TRR) to restrict (or ban) shale gas drilling, properly known as high impact industrial use. Attend zoning meetings and speak up.

The prospect of jobs is largely a PR trick to sell this entire disaster because we happen to be in economic need, a cruel trick. The low-wage drilling field jobs and jobs flipping hamburgers and running laundromats for out-of-town workers produce chickenfeed compared to the horrendous losses and costs of (partial list) destruction of our roads; medical expenses due to adverse health effects via contamination of our drinking water (see 9-18-11 news story on multiple cement casing failures reported by PA DEP, allowing aquifer ruination invisible until health symptoms show up -– will you be one family affected?); costs of water testing; loss of property value; loss of tourism (and loss of those jobs); leaks and explosion danger of pipelines; noise of compressors stations; pollution of our air from drilling emissions and diesel exhaust from thousands of frack trucks (asthma in children is rising in Bradford County per testimony to the recent Citizens Commission; and worsening of greenhouse effect via widespread methane leaks and venting, making shale gas production a climate menace.

As for "energy security," we are being colonized. A lot of this shale gas extracted at such cost to our quality of life is being exported overseas.

It’s not too late to come to our senses. Come on! Get thee to a copy machine!