Russell Gold’s “The Boom” as a sustainability learning opportunity

September 22, 2015 | 0 comments

This year’s Penn State Reads book is The Boom by Russell Gold. It tells the story of fracking’s  ascent from its early days in the 19th century using explosives to the modern technique of horizontal drilling and high-volume slickwater hydraulic fracturing for oil and natural gas. Fracking has altered the world energy market, and with it communities and ecosystems. On The Field Guide Blog we want to provide an introductory frame for thinking about The Boom as a way to develop sustainability literacy. Below you will find a brief introduction to the effects of shale gas drilling in Pennsylvania, with links to peer-reviewed research, government agencies and media in hyperlinks.

While we try to cover a good deal of material here, it is not possible to get into everything. Noting how much this issue has divided people, we recognize that some people will be disappointed by this post. Industry boosters will find it overly critical while fracking critics might think we are not discriminating enough. Our goal is to invite a constructive and serious conversation about an urgent social and environmental issue*.

In Pennsylvania, shale gas drilling is one of the most high-profile sustainability issues. If sustainability helps us think about and act on the interconnected health of community and society, economy and nature, then the booming natural gas industry must occupy prime space for us. How?

From the standpoint of energy and materials supply, natural gas from shale drilling has already had a big impact.  For a month earlier this year in the United States natural gas displaced coal as the single biggest fuel for electricity generation. That trend will continue over the coming decades. According to the Energy Information Agency, natural gas consumption in the industrial sector will continue to increase “rapidly through 2016 and then more slowly through 2040, benefiting from the increase in shale gas production that is accompanied by slower growth of natural gas prices. Industries such as bulk chemicals, which use natural gas as a feedstock, are more strongly affected than others. Natural gas use as a feedstock in the chemical industry increases by about 0.4 quadrillion Btu from 2013 to 2040. In the residential sector, natural gas consumption declines from 2018 to 2040 and it increases slightly in the commercial sector over the same period.”

There is little debate right now that domestically produced natural gas can be a relatively stable source of energy for the next twenty years. That stability is achieved through natural gas fracking, which has both positive and negative effects; the rest of this essay explores some of those effects:  What have the impacts been on our communities, the economy and the environment? What will they be in the future?

According to recent Gallup polls, the country is evenly divided on fracking. A March 23, 2015 poll found that 40% of people support fracking for natural gas and oil and 40% oppose it. There is a partisan divide on the issue with Republicans supporting it more than Democrats by 66% to 26%. A majority of active participants in the environmental movement oppose fracking.

Pennsylvanian’s perceptions of and the distribution of risks and rewards are not uniform, as Penn State Education Policy Studies and Rural Sociology researchers have discovered. Other researchers from Penn State, Cornell and the Center for Northeastern Rural Development have also discovered that “[c]ommunities experiencing rapid growth due to energy development (‘boomtowns’) have reported positive and negative impacts on community and individual well-being.” There have been a handful of “shaleionaires,” people who have suddenly become millionaires from natural gas drilling on their properties. In the last several years the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania came to employ more people than the coal industry. However, the overall employment numbers for Pennsylvania residents may be more modest than early predictions indicated. There has been spillover into the rest of the economy but the spillover is also more modest than some earlier predictions indicated (see here also). Additionally, health researchers worry about increased toxification of the environment and the associated health impacts.

No matter the degree of the monetary windfall, the natural gas boom has had significant impacts on the environment. There is increased truck traffic, noise from compressor stations and other equipment that affects people and wildlife. And the drilling and hydraulic fracturing process itself has impacts. These include deforestation and conversion of productive land into roads or well pads that fragment habitat and threaten a large number of species, including domesticated animals and humans, though the scale or degree of health impacts is currently not well understood and more research needs to be conducted. The hydraulic fracturing process itself uses millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and lubricants, acid, biocides, surfactants and other chemicals. When that water returns to the surface, it is also radioactive and contains concentrations of corrosive salts that exceed the limits allowed for discharge by wastewater treatment plants.

Managing these water impacts is problematic. There are waste water recycling programs. In some cases, the water used for fracking has come from streams rendered lifeless by acid mine drainage, thereby minimizing the damages. Still, no technology has been brought to market that is able to clean the flowback water. It has been disposed of in landfills, disposed of as deicing brine on roads and disposed of in deep injection wells. There is now conclusive evidence that the high volume of water injected into those wells at high pressure has triggered earthquakes in Ohio, Oklahoma and elsewhere.

When natural gas is burned, it produces about half of the carbon dioxide that coaldoes, leading some to conclude that use of fracked natural gas may mitigate climate change.  But this conclusion ignores the impact of fugitive methane emissions in the extraction and piping of natural gas.  Methane is 72 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide over a twenty year time frame, and 20 times as potent over 100 years. Because measurements of fugitive methane emissions from natural gas infrastructure are disputed, the climate impacts of fracked gas remain uncertain (see here).

The state and local governments of Pennsylvania have addressed the effects of the booming gas industry in different ways.  To cite a few:

In comments about his audit of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), Auditor General Eugene DePasquale recognized significant challenges to regulating industry. He said, “It’s like firefighters trying to put out a five-alarm fire with a 20-foot garden hose.” The findings were welcomed by environmental organizations and disputed by former DEP secretary Mike Krancer and Marcellus Shale Coalition spokesman Patrick Creighton.

Former Republican Governor Tom Corbett was a key ally of the gas industry during his term. Last year he lost his reelection bid to Democrat Tom Wolf, who has pushed for a higher severance tax and reinstated a moratorium on new drilling in forests and parks. Activists have pushed Governor Wolf to follow the lead of New York, which has banned fracking or Maryland which has instated a moratorium.

Fracking is a sustainability issue of paramount importance. It affects our communities by producing the fuel we use to power our homes and run our business and industry. Without natural gas, our energy infrastructure would be different, likely more heavily dependent on coal, though possibly more open to renewable energy. But the fracking of natural gas has widespread environmental impacts: harming wildlife, fragmenting habitat, polluting water and amplifying the greenhouse effect. And it has disruptive effects on communities.  But its impacts are less than coal on nearly every measure—this is not a small issue.

If you want to continue exploring fracking and The Boom, please use the Penn State Reads curriculum portal. For beginners as well as for those of us steeped in sustainability, energy and education, the Penn State Reads portal offers very good questions for reflection. We call attention to a few of them here:

  • With the looming specter of climate change, how has fracking altered our energy mindset? Penn State Reads say, Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club is asked if natural gas helps or hinders the battle against climate change and carbon emissions. His response is “I would say yes, it both helps and hinders” (p. 264). In what ways do you think it helps or hinders this battle? [Since the book was written, Brune has said, “Because of these unacceptable risks to our communities, our environment, and our climate, the Sierra Club is opposed to fracking, period.”]
  • Will fracking’s success at getting at previously unreachable fossil fuels hinder renewable energy development and deepen climate disruption? The guide poses it this way: Anthony Ingraffea, a professor at Cornell University asks “How do we get from where we are today, which is not sustainable even with shale gas that is a nonrenewable resource…How are we going to get to that golden era when we stop kicking the can down the road…?” (p. 236). How would you answer Ingraffea’s question?
  • In 2011, Nature published dueling articles by Terry Engelder of Penn State University (featured on the Penn State Reads website) against Robert Howarth and Tony Ingraffea of Cornell University. Given that Ingraffea and Engelder are featured in Chapter 10 of The Boom, reading that exchange is worthwhile and instructive regarding that last question.
  • Two other questions for the book’s final chapter, “Pandora’s Frack,” circle back:
    The author is a senior energy reporter for The Wall Street Journal. He uses a journalistic style in this book; he reports the facts. Yet in this last chapter he tells the reader more about his own perspective on fracking, and states “It’s time to slow down” (p. 310). Do you agree or disagree with his position? If you agree, what concrete steps need to be taken to slow down? How might you contribute to this slow down? Also, why do you think Gold waits until this last chapter to focus on his own opinions?

Gold states “I don’t fear fracking. I fear carbon” (p. 305). Do you have fear about energy sources? Has reading this book heightened or allayed your concerns? Be specific.

The Boom invites a conversation about energy, waste and the overlap of economic, social and environmental costs, risks and benefits. Over the coming couple of weeks we will solicit some thoughts from Penn State faculty as well as community members affected by gas drilling in the lead-up to to Russell Gold’s visit to Penn State from October 12th to 14th. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, we highly suggest that you read The Boom.

*Written by Dr. Peter Buckland, Penn State’s Sustainability Institute.

Disclosure: Dr. Buckland was part of Groundswell, which successfully pushed for a referendum for a Community and Environmental Bill of Rights and Fracking Ban in State College in 2011. He sits on the executive committee of the Sierra Club Moshannon group.

This post was updated on Thursday September 24, 2015 to include more polling data.

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