Bernard Goldstein, M.D., a member of the expert panel for The Public's Health, is a professor emeritus of environmental and occupational health and former dean of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, and an elected member of the National Academies of Science Institute of Medicine. His major professional activities are currently related to the public health implications of Marcellus shale activities and to the scientific framework for sustainability.
By Bernard Goldstein
Guinea pigs lead an exciting life – for at least a while. They are the first to be chosen for adventurous new projects, and while the project lasts they get lots of attention. But in the long run they are sacrificed to the benefit of others. Pennsylvania and, to a lesser extent, West Virginia, are now the guinea pigs for other American states with Marcellus shale gas deposits that are wisely going slow. Not only do we run more risks of adverse environmental- and human-health impacts, but we will have less economic benefit than will other Marcellus shale states for the amount of gas we have underground.
I start with the baseline assumption that extracting gas from the Marcellus shale in the long run is both beneficial and inevitable. We eventually will drill for gas in virtually all of the Marcellus region. Let me also start with the highest praise for the technological smarts of the drilling companies and of the U.S. Department of Energy in developing this new technology. Bending drill pipe from the vertical to the horizontal one mile underground; blowing holes into a relatively narrow shale gas layer in which the gas is tightly held; and then using hydrofracturing techniques to open and maintain channels to remove this gas is nothing short of amazing.
But two key points must be kept in mind: First, a large fraction of the existing gas is left behind in those parts of the shale that are not close enough to the well holes or that are not blown open or kept open by the hydraulic fracturing process. And second, the industry’s drilling technology is getting better at retrieving even more of the gas and leaving less behind.
I am not a petroleum engineer, although I have a broad background in environmental health science, including serving as the Environmental Protection Agency's assistant administrator for research and development, appointed by President Reagan. So how do I know that states that go more slowly will make more money per amount of gas in the Marcellus shale than Pennsylvania will?
First, there is information from the Barnett shale in Texas showing the progressive increase in gas yield over time. I also feel confident because in the past few months I have made this point in front of industry representatives and petroleum engineers in meetings in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Louisiana, Washington, D.C., and Alberta. In each case I have asked that anyone in the audience who disagrees please get up and say so. No one has. So let me repeat this request: If anyone out there thinks my prediction – that improving drilling technology will lead to more gas yield over time – is wrong, please let me know.
The boom and bust cycle we are now experiencing is yet another reason why rushing ahead as the guinea pig for the Marcellus region diminishes the economic benefit to Pennsylvania. This headlong rush has increased gas supplies faster than demand, inevitably leading to a decline in natural gas prices. The resulting dislocation may be part of the reason that, for the first time since 2006, Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate for September, the most recent state data available, was higher than the nation's. Over time we can expect that supply and demand will be more closely coordinated, thus sparing other Marcellus shale regions from the costly dislocations currently affecting Pennsylvania’s industry and workers.
Gov. Corbett's tax breaks for industry also make no sense if you accept, as I do, that virtually all shale gas areas in our state will be drilled. It may be reasonable to give a tax break to Toyota so that the manufacturing giant locate its next automobile plant in Pennsylvania rather than in another state. But if the industry wants our shale gas, which it obviously does, then we should not subsidize it to get the gas.
Trial and error has also characterized the less rigorous industry approaches to environmental and occupational health risks. In the past 18 months the state had to impose a “voluntary moratorium” on using classic water treatment facilities for the literally millions of gallons of flowback water that come from every “frac.” The trucking of the flowback water to Ohio that resulted was then stopped because of earthquakes. Currently, industry is scrambling with new trial and error approaches to the millions of gallons of flowback water that comes to the surface after each hydrofracture. Similarly, improvements are occurring in well casings and other aspects of the overall drilling process for which failure has already led to adverse environmental consequences.
The commission formed by President Obama after the Deepwater Horizon disaster raised national security issues as one reason to recommend that drilling resume in the Gulf of Mexico. If we did not get this oil it was possible that the Cubans, Venezuelans or Chinese might do so. Unless the Canadians figure out how to horizontally drill under Lake Erie, however, the shale gas under Pennsylvania is ours for the taking.
We can’t expect Gov. Corbett to tell us that in the long run Pennsylvania will have less economic benefit than other states. Like most politicians, his time frame does not go beyond his potential term of office. Nor can we expect industry to pass up the opportunity offered by the governor to make Pennsylvania a guinea pig. When New York, Maryland, Ontario, and Quebec eventually get around to drilling in their Marcellus shale, they should thank us for what the industry has learned while we served the role of guinea pigs.
But it is more likely that they will be too busy healthily laughing on their way to the bank.
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