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

    A suspected leak from a wastewater pond on Don and Carol Johnson's farm meant their cows had to be quarantined

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    That's the fear of many Pennsylvania residents. It's not just the worries about what might be happening to their water; it's also what they know is happening to their communities. Trucks crowd country roads, ferrying drilling fluid and equipment to and from wells. Jobs are up, but some businesses have suffered as employees have fled for higher-paying jobs in the gas industry. As rig workers have snapped up every available room in tiny towns, rents have skyrocketed, punishing low-income families who don't own their homes. Those who had moved to the area for a quiet Pennsylvania — and those who've valued that peace for generations — feel betrayed. "I think it's been a good thing overall," says John Sullivan, a commissioner for Bradford County. "But I just wish we could keep the economic benefit and minimize everything else."

    The Cleaner Fuel
    Good luck with that. Make no mistake: in a post-Fukushima world, the U.S. will use this gas. It's important to cast the environmental controversies surrounding shale drilling against the backdrop of the fossil fuel that, if all goes well, gas should help displace: coal. From mountaintop-removal mining to its impact on climate change, cheap coal is toxic to the human race. Thousands die in coal mines annually around the world; in the U.S. alone, air pollution from coal combustion leads to thousands of premature deaths a year. Natural gas power plants, by contrast, emit far fewer air pollutants. Natural gas's benefit over coal when it comes to climate change is less clear-cut, but it's there, and gas can also coexist with renewable energy, providing inexpensive backup for wind and solar. "Natural gas could be crucial to integrating renewables into the power grid," says Ralph Cavanagh, a co-director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's energy program.

    Still, Cavanagh has a warning: "Industry can blow this if it doesn't meet the public's environmental expectations." Those expectations will almost certainly include tougher regulations. In the U.S., that can be done, starting at the federal level, by giving the EPA the power to do a life-cycle analysis of hydraulic fracturing, looking at the cumulative impact of wide-scale drilling on water supplies. Representative Maurice Hinchey of New York and Senator Robert Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania have submitted commonsense pieces of legislation that would require industry to disclose the identities of chemicals used in fracking jobs. The bulk of the oversight may still be done by states, but governors will need to take care that drilling doesn't outpace regulators, as happened in Pennsylvania. The best gas players can keep improving their rates of recycling wastewater — Chesapeake Energy says it has a 100% recycling rate — while making use of new technologies like those offered by the Utah-based firm Purestream, which can evaporate and clean wastewater at the wellhead. Areas like the New York City watershed that are too valuable should be kept off-limits. "The gas is out there, and it can be accessed," says Dean Oskvig, president and CEO of Black & Veatch's energy business. "But we do need to solve the environmental issues surrounding that extraction."

    If that can be done right, shale gas really could change the way we use energy for the better. But even if it does, the industry will still fundamentally remake parts of the U.S., and of the world, in ways we won't always like. But that's the price of extreme energy, and it's one we'll continue to pay until we can curb our hunger for fossil fuels or find a cheap, reliable and clean alternative to them.

    For some people, though, the price may simply be too high. Cindy Copp's family had lived in northeastern Pennsylvania's Tioga County for five generations, and after selling her home in town recently, she'd planned to open an organic farm. But as the quiet 50-year-old learned more about what drilling might do to the land — and as the gas boom made her hometown unrecognizable — she surrendered. "I tried to start my community, but the community is fractured," she says, her eyes welling. "I don't see a future here."

    Instead, Copp is moving to a rural commune near Hudson, N.Y. There's no shale-gas drilling there — yet.

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