TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Natural gas is a key part of America’s energy supply, providing nearly a quarter of our total energy needs. That includes a third of the energy used by industry, homes and businesses and nearly 30 percent of the electricity we generate.
Natural gas is clean and cheap compared to other forms of energy. Over the last few years, U.S. and world natural gas reserves have soared — U.S. reserves are up by over a third — as we’ve discovered how to apply the technique known as “fracking” to unleash gas trapped in deep underground shale formations.
Fracking involves pumping a mixture of water, sand and chemicals under pressure into underground formations, releasing the gas trapped there. Some of the material pumped in returns to the surface; some remains underground where it props open the fractures created in the formation.
The technique has been in use in the United States since the 1940s and it has been used around the world for decades in both oil and gas production. What is new is its effectiveness as methods are refined and the extent of the areas where it can be used cost effectively.
This has revolutionized America’s energy picture. Shale gas made up just 1 percent of our gas supply in 2000; today it represents 25 percent.
In the early 2000s, plans were under way to build liquefied natural gas terminals to import natural gas from the Middle East. Today we are retrofitting our ports to allow us to export it. Natural gas prices have fallen to a quarter of their 2000 price, in large part as a result of this dramatic increase in supply.
As we discover new shale formations with recoverable gas, we face some difficult technical and legal issues. The liquid residue can pose risks to ground water and pumping pressurized liquid into the ground can affect neighbors’ properties.
However, thus far fracking’s dangers are mostly theoretical. Earlier this year EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson — certainly no friend to the hydrocarbon energy industry — told Congress that there had been “no proven cases where the fracking process itself has affected water.”
“We have in place a national regulatory system to protect ground water and well developed principles of property law that protect neighbors,” she testified. “We don’t need more rules, just consistent application of those we have already.”
Indeed, all forms of energy production involve side effects. Consider these examples:
• Wind and solar energy production require extensive use of rare earth minerals. Almost all of these minerals are imported from China where their production often triggers environmental disasters. The British Daily Mail’s investigation into rare earth production for renewable energy earlier this year quoted Greenpeace China as saying “There’s not one step of the rare earth mining process that is not disastrous for the environment.”
• Ethanol poses serious threats to water in the Midwest, both from its water-intensive production draining aquifers faster than they recharge and from groundwater pollution from increased fertilizer use in growing corn.
• Nuclear plants require disposal of long term radioactive wastes. Coal plants emit both conventional pollutants and greenhouse gases, while mining risks lives and the environment.
Unless we are willing to drastically reduce our energy use — and so diminish our access to energy-intensive goods like pharmaceuticals and computers — we cannot reject every advance in energy production.
And unlike renewable energy firms such as General Electric and Archers Daniels Midland, the natural gas industry doesn’t have its hand out asking for subsidies. Making sure we do not shut down development of our natural gas reserves with ill-considered regulatory measures is critical to our energy future.
• Morriss is the D. Paul Jones Jr. and Charlene A. Jones chairholder in law and professor of business at the University of Alabama and a co-author of “The False Promise of Green Energy” (Cato 2011).