Could Shale Gas Power the World?

Natural gas from shale rock promises to provide cleaner, abundant energy for the U.S. and the world. But there's a catch. It could come with significant environmental and social costs. Can the energy industry deliver the goods so that everyone benefits?

  • Jeff Riedel for TIME

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    Nor is the U.S. alone. Britain, India, China and countries in Eastern Europe have potential shale plays as well, while Australia, having invested in huge infrastructure projects, has started sending fleets of ships with liquefied natural gas around the world.

    Over all this loom three factors: booming demand for energy as nations such as China and India industrialize; the accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan, which has dimmed prospects for a renaissance of nuclear power; and the turmoil in the oil-rich Middle East. Taken together, they have opened space for gas as a relatively clean, relatively cheap fuel that can help fill the world's needs during the transition to a truly green economy. (As important as renewable energy is, it will likely take years for green power to shoulder the electricity load.) Although gas isn't used for transport, boosters like Texas tycoon T. Boone Pickens think if heavy-duty vehicles were fueled with natural gas, the U.S. would be able to cut imports of oil. U.S. utilities worried about meeting regulations on carbon and air pollution are switching from dirty coal to gas as a power source. In a speech on March 30, President Barack Obama hailed natural gas as part of the solution to reducing America's oil addiction. "The potential for natural gas is enormous," he said.

    They Weren't Ready for This
    But there's a catch. As shale-gas drilling has ramped up, it's been met with a growing environmental backlash. There are complaints about spills and air pollution from closely clustered wells and fears of wastewater contamination from the hydraulic fracturing process — also known as fracking — that is used to tap shale-gas resources. In the U.S., the gas industry is exempt from many federal regulations, leaving most oversight to state governments that have sometimes been hard-pressed to keep up with the rapid growth of drilling. The investigative news site ProPublica has found over 1,000 reports of water contamination near drilling sites. New York State — spurred by fears about the possible impact of the industry on New York City's watershed — has put hydraulic fracturing on hold for further study, while some members of Congress are looking to tighten regulation of drilling. "We were not ready for this," says John Quigley, former head of Pennsylvania's department of conservation and natural resources. "We weren't ready for the technology or the scale or the pace."

    And that's what makes this new energy revolution — because that's what it is — so complex. The richest shale-gas play and potentially the second biggest natural gas field in the world is called the Marcellus, and its heart runs straight through parts of Pennsylvania and New York. This drilling isn't taking place in the Gulf of Mexico, the Saudi deserts or lightly populated western Canada. It's happening right in the backyard of the U.S. Northeast, a densely populated place accustomed to consuming fossil fuels, not producing them. But if the global appetite for gas and oil keeps growing, rural Pennsylvania won't be the last unlikely place we'll drill. Because for all our fears of running out of oil, we should be able to find more than enough fuel to keep the global economy humming — provided we're willing to drill in deeper, darker, more dangerous or more crowded places. The Arctic, the ultra-deep ocean off Brazil and New York City's watershed all could go under the drill as we enter what the writer Michael Klare has called the Era of Extreme Energy. The power will keep flowing — but with environmental and even social costs we can't yet predict.

    It wasn't news to fossil-fuel experts that the Marcellus Shale — a 400 million-year-old narrow band of black rock that lies thousands of feet deep — could contain gas. Shallow natural gas wells have been drilled in the Northeast for decades. But shale like that of the Marcellus is made up of deep, hard rock, and it does not surrender its gas easily. Shale wasn't worth the trouble — until a veteran wildcatter named George Mitchell began experimenting with the Barnett Shale in Texas in the 1980s. Mitchell found that a mix of horizontal well drilling and hydraulic fracturing — more on that later —could allow him to pry gas from the shale. "It was lore in the gas industry that you would hurt a well by putting water down it," says Terry Engelder, a geoscientist at Penn State University. "These guys discovered that the more water they used, the better."

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