Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Shale Gas: A Cautionary Tale from DISH, Texas

Natural gas is a cleaner fuel than oil, and much cleaner than coal. But it does carry an environmental price, as the little town of DISH, Texas, population 200, has just learned.

Reporting I've done over the past couple of years on natural gas has focused on the proposals by international energy companies to build liquid natural gas terminals along the East Coast of the United States, some in fragile areas like eastern Long Island Sound (see my posts here under the label "Broadwater") and others so close to populated areas that residents have gone to extraordinary lengths to stop them.

When I wrote about these proposals, it seemed so unnecesssary to me to invade our coastal waters to get natural gas supplies because natural gas production in the U.S. has been rising, thanks, in large part, to extraction of natural gas from shale formations. New domestic production seemed far more desirable--energy efficient and secure--than having huge ships cross the oceans from places like Qatar that would then offload the gas along our coasts, with the attendant sacrifice of fish, the health of the fishing industry, and the beauty of bays, estuaries and ocean.

But now along comes a cautionary tale from DISH, which recently spent 15% of its total budget to find out if the shale gas industry there was affecting community health. The town went to this extraordinary expense because the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality ignored the town's requests that it investigate pollution caused by the industry.

Dish's study turned up some disturbing results. It found benzene, a known carcinogen in all seven samples tested; three had levels exceeding the state's regulatory limit. In general
  • "The tests confirmed the presence of multiple recognized and suspected carcinogens...known to emanate from industrial processes of exploration drilling, flaring and compression" of natural gas.
In addition, the people of DISH have been complaining that their quality of life has suffered. The town is a bedroom community with rural surroundings, but now there's constant noise and vibration from the gas operations that literally shakes the homes to their foundations.

The news from DISH comes at a critical time. Other areas of the country with shale gas deposits, including Horseheads, in upstate New York, are looking at proposals for extracting natural gas. It's doubtful they can resist the lure of jobs and economic development, even though other suspected results of shale gas extraction may be earthquakes and water pollution. (Extracting the gas requires heavy use of water.)

All the more reason for passage of the so-called FRAC Act, now pending in both houses of Congress. It would close a loophole in the Safe Drinking Water Act so it would apply to natural gas extraction, and require full disclosure of all toxic substances released by drilling. Earthworks has documented the need for better regulation of shale gas extraction. It calls the loophole the "Halliburton Exemption," and yes, that leads directly to the leader of the dark side himself, Dick Cheney.

Our need for fuel of some kind is unavoidable, and natural gas is better than other fossil fuel choices. But we need to minimize the harm, and we can all thank the people of DISH for opening our eyes to the need to put good regulation in place before it's too late.

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