With each passing day more evidence gets published exposing the terrible risk and cost of shale gas extraction and its negative impacts to people and communities. This post considers the claimed benefits and pairs them with the downside risks and costs.
The US has been overly dependent on the big Middle Eastern oil producers. The price and availability of fossil fuels has a direct effect on every aspect of our consumer economy, and impacts the lifestyles of all but the very rich. The development of shale gas and oil worldwide was a game changer. The US is now an energy exporter and the price of fossil energy has dropped dramatically.
It sounds like a big win, but it’s not. Global climate change effects are already disrupting economies world wide and threaten to obliterate island nations. Our grandchildren will live in a radically altered ecosystem as formerly verdant areas become deserts, and as snow packs vanish as a source of fresh water. These are only two of the vast changes that are happening and will get worse due to our continuing use of fossil fuels.
True energy independence requires a shift to non-carbon renewable energy sources. Though fossil fuels will remain a part of the mix, they must be restricted to levels that keep atmospheric carbon below 350 ppm. (Its over 400 now.) Low cost fossil fuels compete with renewable energy in the market place, slowing development and adoption at a time when all credible experts agree that we need emergency measures to suppress carbon emissions.
At best the energy independence benefit is a short-term benefit. But I see it as analogous to a drunk having one more for the road.
Shale gas development brings jobs to communities where the drilling takes place. The scale of modern drilling operations is huge. Hydraulic fracturing adds a vast support network of trucking for water (4 million gallons per well), chemicals, sand, and equipment. In addition to the drill crews there is an army of support workers employed to supply them. The collection and processing of the products adds a network of pipelines and compressor stations and jobs for the crews that build and operate it. These jobs pay well for the level of education required to do them.
But are they “good” jobs? At best, they are temporary and most workers migrate to follow the work as new development starts in fresh locations. The work proceeds 24/7 and involves long hours of hard physical work in a hazardous environment. Workers enjoy few benefits and minimal protections because the drilling industry has carved out exceptions in Federal and state laws that protect other workers. Life-changing injuries are common, and the fatality rate is seven times the average. Exposure to dust, chemicals, and toxic gasses can precipitate long term health issues.
The work is boom or bust. During boom periods, the influx of drilling workers drives up local housing costs and also other basic costs as the local market adjusts to scarcity and the influx of people with money to spend. During bust cycles, unemployment and under employment set in as the jobs that supported the boom dry up. Convenience stores, gas stations, restaurants, bars, local retail must all cut back.
A new documentary titled Gas Work – The Fight for CJ’s Law dramatically illustrates the family impacts of shale gas work with interviews and scenes of industrial accident sites. Employers create an atmosphere of fear telling workers who object to conditions that they are “a dime a dozen” and that they must accept the risks, keep quiet about spills and other violations, and generally do as they are told or get fired. Coworkers shun those who challenge unsafe conditions. (See the film on the big screen and join the discussion afterwords at the 350.org event on November 13th 2015, Newtown Friends Meeting, 7PM.)
Yes, shale gas development creates jobs, but not so many; and fewer yet are truly good jobs that last, the ones that enhance the general quality of life in a community.
Cheap fossil energy is like tobacco and alcohol. In moderation, use is relatively harmless and feels good. But the convenience and abundance is seductive and it becomes hard to abstain. Over time we become dependent and the use is destructive to some but not necessarily all who indulge. Dependence distorts judgment and encourages denial of the reality of the addictions destructive impacts. In any present moment, we have the illusion that our addictions are only “guilty pleasures” – something we should quit, but just not today. We justify them as needs.
Since about 2007 the world has had practical and feasible technology to make non-fossil energy sufficient for its economic needs. We have known about the peril of permanent climate change for nearly a century. But our addiction to cheap energy is hard, very hard indeed, to shake. None are so blind as they who will not see.
In July Governor Wolfe and shale gas industry leaders formed a task force to plan a massive pipeline build-out to expedite the flow of gas to markets. The federal government has lifted its ban on oil and gas exports. Last month the energy industry announced that Philadelphia will be “energy central.” One of the featured speakers, Robert Bryce fueled the collective denial with an optomistic talk entitled Innovation, Shale, and the Second American Century. Brice authored a book entitled, How Innovation Keeps Proving the Catastrophists Wrong.” Clearly there’s cache and cash in telling folks what they want to hear.
We are witnessing a colossal train wreck in the making presided over by people who are enjoying too much wealth and power to see it coming.