Stamatakis: Natural gas and dead goats

By Nick Stamatakis

You are in a bleak, concrete room located deep within the walls of an isolated island fortress…. You are in a bleak, concrete room located deep within the walls of an isolated island fortress. Confused and disoriented, you watch as a man — wait, let’s stir up this stereotypical scene and make it a woman — walks in with a steel box topped with a big, old-fashioned steel red button.

“If you push this button, two things will happen,” the woman solemnly declares. “One, a goat will die. Two, a rural Pennsylvanian will get a job.”

I can feel your enthusiasm deflating for this column right about now. You probably don’t want to hear about rural Pennsylvanians. Or dead goats for that matter. But actually, it’s a decision you will all have to make very soon, or at least a decision that we will make collectively, and one that is insanely interesting.

What I am speaking about, of course, is drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale, a massive reservoir underneath Pennsylvania and other mid-Atlantic states that, until recently, was not an economically viable gas source because of difficult drilling procedures.

A lot of people don’t want the drilling to occur. Both statewide and national groups like PennFuture and the Sierra Club oppose it, as well as local student groups Free the Planet and the Pittsburgh Student Environmental Coalition. They cite two primary concerns: the environmental costs and the implications for equitability. Addressing both would be too much for one column, so expect a discussion of equitability next week.

This week, we focus on the environmental cost. Ignore the dead goats for now — which, I’ll admit, were a bit of a ploy to keep you reading — and consider what is guaranteed to happen at every well site. Every well requires big roads, big machinery and big, ugly containment ponds. Put this in the column of inevitable environmental costs.

Now consider those horror stories of goats dying from polluted ground water and drinking water becoming flammable through infection by a combination of methane and toxic sludge. According to the Worldwatch Institute, a sustainability organization in Washington, D.C., this is not a guaranteed outcome of drilling. Underground aquifers and the natural gas deposits are separated by thousands of feet of rock.

Contamination only happens when accidents or improper disposal occurs. I’m not going to pretend it doesn’t happen, but it’s important to acknowledge that this isn’t happening everywhere and that effective regulation can reduce this (although I’m not naive about this either). It’s only in a small proportion of cases that water supplies become bad enough to kill goats and pollute drinking water.

So go into the concrete room and picture these environmental costs — big drilling sites in rural Pennsylvania, some dead goats, some polluted drinking and surface water.

But let’s just look at the benefits for a little bit before you rush to any emotional decisions about pushing the button. According to Tom Murphy of the Penn State Cooperative Extension, the benefits all stem from around $500 billion worth of natural gas. This is instant wealth out of nothing, creating an economic impact on local businesses that “may be felt for years to come.” The exploration could boost the real-estate market, drastically increase wages, and provide employment.

Plus, according to the Department of Energy, even the speculation of increased reserves and supplies has sent natural gas prices plunging around 30 percent in the Northeast since last year.

Back on the island then, you have a choice to make. The environmental images are emotionally charged, but the possible economic benefits are charged also — families with a decent income, elderly people who can afford their heating bills and a beaming local businesses owner.

Should we work to bring up human happiness  — which I believe drilling does — or does the earth somehow get a say? Do you push the button for us, or refuse?

The answer to that question is too big for a Pitt News column.

E-mail Nick at [email protected]