Natural Gas Industry Needs to Clean Up Its Act

The New York Times recently published a series of articles about the natural gas boom sweeping America. Roughly 75,000 wells have been drilled in the past five years alone, and tens of thousands more are planned for the near future.

But as the articles revealed, much of this expansion is taking place with little or insufficient oversight from the agencies charged with protecting public health and the environment.

Indeed, the gas industry has secured exemptions from most of the major federal environmental laws, including the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act; it simply doesn’t have to follow all the same rules other industries do. And it has grown so fast that regulators can’t keep pace. The state of West Virginia, for instance, has only 12 inspectors to monitor 60,000 wells. Other states are similarly overwhelmed.

I found the series hauntingly familiar.

I spent the last nine months serving on the President’s National Commission on the BP Oil Spill. Reading the natural gas articles, I was struck by how several of the root causes that led to the Deepwater Horizon blowout—a lax regulatory environment, understaffed agencies, minimal fines for infractions, constant pressure on Congress to minimize safety concerns and give industry broad leeway—are present onshore as well.

In our final report, the commission concluded that in order to prevent offshore disasters in the future the industry must be held to higher safety standards and stronger government regulation.

The same must be said about onshore drilling. It must not be allowed to police itself, for in the absence of oversight, Americans living in the path of this gold rush pay the price.

The Times articles reported that Pittsburgh residents were instructed to drink bottled water in late 2008 when natural gas and coal-mine waste overwhelmed the Monongahela River, a major source of drinking water. A rural county in Wyoming has smog levels higher than Los Angeles due to the dense concentration of natural gas wells. Texas children living in counties with some of the heaviest natural gas drilling have a 25 percent asthma rate—more than three times the state average.

The series quoted a Texas woman who lives near a natural gas well and compressor station and whose children have severe asthma attacks:

I’m not an activist, an alarmist, a Democrat, environmentalist or anything like that. I’m just a person who isn’t able to manage the health of my family because of all this drilling.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Many of the spills, accidents, and waste problems associated with natural gas could be prevented with better quality control. 

Natural gas does have a role to play in our energy future—especially if it is used to replace dirty coal power—but only a supporting role. Energy efficiency and renewable energy are the largest, cleanest, and cheapest untapped resources to meet our power needs.  Natural gas as it is currently produced and distributed has significant, avoidable downsides.  To protect our climate, we must cut carbon pollution that would result from uncontrolled, expanded gas use. 

The right policy for natural gas is to clean up how we produce and distribute it, make it a part of our energy mix, not the dominant player, reduce its emissions with carbon and methane capture, and assure that gas-fueled buildings, appliances, and power plants are designed as efficiently as we can make them.

Though NRDC sees potential in natural gas, we must insist industry and policymakers embrace a safer, cleaner agenda that is strictly enforced and adhered to, with rules on the books, inspectors in the field, and meaningful penalties for any infraction.

This industry—and government regulators—must have a zero-tolerance policy for any infraction that threatens human health or the environment. This includes complying with stronger regulations, putting certain places off limits to drilling, and utilizing best practices across the industry. We know that many best practices are accessible and affordable for this industry, yet they are not uniformly adopted.

One would think the natural gas industry would support improving its practices considering it bills itself as a major player in America’s clean energy future. NRDC will continue to hold the industry accountable for its failings until it lives up to its potential and takes care of its toxic mess.