Why We Need Independent Experts to Monitor the Natural Gas Industry

The documentary film Gasland depicts a myriad of environmental hazards associated with drilling for natural gas in the United States.  That film, which is now available on HBO, is part of a growing chorus of environmental activists who are concerned about the safety of drilling procedure known as “fracking.”  Here’s the trailer.

This is problematic not only for the potential hazards that are being released into water supplies, but for the public’s perception of natural gas.  UN Foundation Chief Senator Tim Wirth and Former State Representative Alice Madden pen an op-ed in The Denver Post explaining why the natural gas industry should welcome some independent oversight with open arms.

The industry protests that it goes the extra mile to protect the environment — recycling its water, re-engineering its wells and ponds for safety, reporting the chemicals it is using when it drills. It says the horror stories in “Gasland” — leaking gas from water faucets and the like — are falsely attributed to their “fracking” process.

How is anyone to know the truth?

There’s actually a simple, tried- and-true answer to that: get independent experts to monitor the industry’s practices and ensure that what it says is true. States can set strong standards for gas production and enforce them vigilantly, supported by fees on producers.

The top gas producers have nothing to fear. The industry’s best practices are protective of the water, land and air. Instead of trying to suggest that the public concerns are not real, or are trivial and can be ignored, industry leaders should come together around a recommended code of conduct (e.g., on water disposal, chemical disclosure, well integrity, and operational footprint) and then work closely with regulatory authorities to make sure everyone follows the code. It’s the bad actors that will get penalized, and that’s in the interest of the industry as well as the public.

The natural gas industry has spent many millions of dollars over the years establishing its product as a clean fuel, and not without reason — natural gas burns much cleaner than coal in power plants or oil in transportation. But all that advertising will go up in smoke if the industry resists regulation and lets its worst performers define the fuel.

Natural gas is not the final answer for America’s energy needs, but it is a key bridge between our current coal and oil dominated energy industry and renewables.  Natural gas burns much cleaner than coal or oil, and it is abundant here in the United States.  If we can abandon coal in favor of natural gas for a period of time, we can help bring down carbon emissions here in the United States and around the world.

Ultimately, the goal is renewable sources like solar or wind. But we are a long way off from a time when those industries supply most of our energy needs. In the meantime, natural gas production can be expanded to replace coal.  That’s why this proposal by Wirth and Madden ought to be heeded.  Public acceptance of natural gas is important if we are to put a dent in climate change.