Extracting natural gas . . . at what cost?

In recent years, natural gas has been increasingly touted as a smart way to meet U.S. energy needs. It’s significantly cheaper than oil, and burns cleaner and greener than oil and coal. Even better, there’s an abundant domestic supply of natural gas, especially in Pennsylvania and New York State, which sit on the Marcellus Shale, home to one of the largest known reserves of natural gas in the world.

As an April 6 panel at Barnard Hall made clear, however, there is a big downside: Exploiting natural gas reserves requires extensive drilling via a process known as hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking, by which millions of gallons of water and chemical additives are injected thousands of feet below ground to break up rock and release natural gas.

Environmental watchdogs, such as New York’s Riverkeepers, have raised serious concerns about the process. With natural-gas developers in upstate New York pushing to begin drilling, the question of how great of a risk “fracking” poses to underground aquifers and the larger water supply is being hotly debated.

“The stars do not align for doing hydrofracking safely,” said Riverkeeper’s Executive Director Paul Gallay, who spoke at the panel, which examined how hydrofracking could impact New York drinking water and was moderated by Barnard environmental science Professor Martin Stute. Among other problems, Gallay said there is a real danger the gas in the wells could leak into underground aquifers. He also noted that there is no adequate way to treat the huge amounts of salty, chemical-laden wastewater that the fracking process will produce.

The stakes couldn’t be much higher, given that a portion of the proposed drill sites are in the Croton, Catskills, and Delaware watersheds that provide roughly a billion gallons of water per day to eight million New York City residents and another million people upstate. As Cass Holloway, commissioner of New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection, noted, New York is one of only five U.S. cities that have a pristine water supply. Holloway has concerns that gas drilling could contaminate the watersheds, and require expensive new filtering systems. “Once you have to filter the New York City water supply, you will have lost a valuable resource,” he said.

Panelist John Conrad argued that many of the safety concerns are based on misunderstandings and said he believes gas drilling can be done responsibly. “Fear makes for bad policy,” said Conrad, a hydrogeologist who consults for the natural gas industry. “There’s a balance to be struck here.”

But Gallay of Riverkeepers said he wasn’t buying arguments that gas drilling was needed to spur economic development upstate—or to help curb the U.S. dependence on fossil fuels. Addressing the greenhouse gas problem, he insisted that basic conservation measures, such as turning out unnecessary lights, could accomplish much more than gas drilling—without threatening the water supply. “If we really want to have a good conversation [about energy], we have to talk about reduction in demand,” said Gallay, who pointed out that there were four rows of lights on in the James Room, where the panel was held, when three would suffice. “Everybody in this room has a chance to do something about energy conservation literally overnight,” he said.

- by Susan Hansen
- Illustration by Heads of State


Download a podcast of the event from iTunesU