‘Saudi America’ fracking boom a dilemma for environmentalists

Here, in the heart of coal country, at the center of the natural gas boom and the former foundation of U.S. manufacturing might, a long-shuttered auto plant now houses the Aquion Energy factory where workers are building innovative batteries to store solar- and wind-generated electricity.

Yet Aquion’s best customers are across the globe, not down the street. The battery manufacturing plant sits southeast of Pittsburgh, atop the Marcellus Shale, the rich geographic formation that is one of the epicenters of the natural gas boom. So the battery storage systems the company makes aren’t likely to be used here, a region brimming with abundant natural gas reserves and reliant on coal-fired plants for energy.

“The interesting paradox here is that we are a clean energy sitting on top of the largest natural gas deposit known in North America, maybe the world,” said Jay Whitacre, a scientist who spun Aquion off from research conducted at Carnegie Mellon University. “And we are producing technology to ship elsewhere, where there is no natural gas.”

America’s recent energy boom has left little breathing room for solar and wind, as low prices for natural gas make it economically challenging for innovators to move U.S. utilities toward the wider use of renewable sources of energy. Here in Pittsburgh, where the National Energy Technology Lab and the state’s universities helped develop the hydraulic fracturing _ fracking _ technology to access previously inaccessible natural gas, it’s especially challenging.

Worldwide, renewable power is expected to increase by 40 percent in the next five years, according to an International Energy Agency forecast released in June. It’s now the fastest-growing power generation sector, and it will make up almost a quarter of the global power mix by 2018, up from an estimated 20 percent in 2011.

But whether that expansion will continue has become a concern for environmentalists as the extent of the fracking boom becomes clear. With the expansion of sources of traditional energy, they worry the pressure for sustainable alternatives will ease. Gasoline prices have held steady, despite sanctions against Iran and a drop-off in production in major oil centers like Venezuela, and the abundance of new natural gas supplies has made it a practical replacement for coal in industries such as power generation.

Even that transition – abundant, cheap and relatively clean natural gas as a replacement for coal, a major contributor of greenhouse gases blamed for global warming – is disconcerting for some environmentalists.

The problem, said Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University, is that the United States is replacing one fossil fuel with another. Natural gas is part of the old economy, not part of the future, he said, and lingering too long with it as a bridge fuel could slow down the transition to renewable sources of electricity.

He jokes that where he lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, “people are driving around in their Priuses, very self-satisfied as if they’re somehow helping the environment by driving a Prius.”

“Well, no, you’re still damaging the environment, you’re just not damaging the environment as much as someone who’s driving an SUV,” he said. “I don’t think that you can look at natural gas as ‘good.’ I think we can maybe look at it as less bad.”

Chris Field, the director of the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology, said the boost in fracking has slowed the search for climate-smart ways of dealing with energy. He compares it to a heroin addict weaning himself off the drug with methadone.

“To me natural gas is kind of the methadone of the energy system,” he said. “Yes, it’s a little bit better than being a heroin addict, but what you really want to do is kick the addiction altogether.”

Many in the environmental movement want to skip the natural gas revolution altogether. The Sierra Club has in recent years waged a successful campaign to shut down the oldest, dirtiest coal-fired power plants and objects to the opening of new ones. Now, the club plans to object to new natural gas-fired power plants as well. The environmental movement has turned to people like actor Mark Ruffalo to get their message out.

“President Obama can’t claim to seriously address climate change and expand fracking for oil and gas – that’s a stark contradiction,” said Ruffalo, who serves as a spokesman for Americans Against Fracking.

Yet it’s clear that President Barack Obama sees natural gas as part of the near-term energy mix. He said as much in June when he outlined his plans to put an end to what he called “limitless dumping of carbon pollution from power plants,” and for the Environmental Protection Agency to create new pollution standards for new and existing power plants.

“The bottom line is natural gas is creating jobs,” Obama said. “It’s lowering many families’ heat and power bills. And it’s the transition fuel that can power our economy with less carbon pollution even as our businesses work to develop and then deploy more of the technology required for the even cleaner energy economy of the future.”

A few environmentalists agree – a development that has split the green movement over fracking.

Last spring, the Environmental Defense Fund, one of the United States’ most prominent green groups, joined forces with several energy companies to form the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, an organization aimed at creating best-practice standards for the fracking industry.

Those behind the center said they created it in a search for a “rational middle,” in the words of Andrew Place, the center’s president, who also works for the energy company EQT. The center’s statement of purpose describes its mission as supporting “continuous improvement and innovative practices . . . with the common objective of developing solutions and serving as a center of excellence for shale gas development.”

“It’s not all or nothing,” Place said. “You really can do this prudently and well. It’s not without risk. There’s nuance, it’s complicated and it’s hard. But it’s fully possible to do it right, to do it well.”

The Environmental Defense Fund’s involvement in the center was immediately attacked by 68 groups and individuals, led by the Civil Society Institute, a Massachusetts-based organization that focuses on environmental issues.

“The very use of the word sustainable in the name is misleading, because there is nothing sustainable about shale oil or shale gas,” the group said in a letter directed the Environmental Defense Fund. “Hydraulic fracturing, the method used to extract them, will permanently remove huge quantities of water from the hydrological cycle, pollute the air, contaminate drinking water, and release high levels of methane into the atmosphere. It should be eminently clear to everyone that an economy based on fossil fuels is unsustainable.”

Environmental cost has been the primary focus for much of the debate surrounding fracking. Studies linking fracking, or the waste it creates, to earthquakes and water pollution are frequently cited by opponents of the technique. A much-disputed 2010 documentary on the environmental effects of fracking, “Gasland,” was nominated for an Academy Award and aired on HBO. For many Americans, the film, whose best-known scene shows a man seemingly setting his methane-tainted tap water on fire, was their introduction to the term “fracking.” The fracking industry dismissed its assertions as overblown and deceptive.

Here in southwestern Pennsylvania, however, such concerns resonate. It wasn’t long ago that Pittsburgh was, in the words of writer James Parton, a teeming stew of smog, rail traffic and human endeavor at the confluence of three rivers that he labeled “hell with the lid off,” a place with a long history of boom and bust cycles driven by industries that spewed toxins into the air, polluted the rivers and tore up the landscape in search of coal.

That past should make people cautious about the fracking boom, says historian Joel Tarr, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who studies the environmental history of cities. The issue is whether energy companies with a track record of busted pipelines, polluted streams and flawed drilling practices deserve any trust.

“My concern, as a historian who worries about what we can learn from the past, is that we’re not handling this well at all,” he said. “We’re not looking at everything that needs to be looked at it. We’re kind of rushing ahead pell-mell, and that’s going to leave a heritage for the future. A very bad legacy.”

Patrick Grenter, executive director of the Center for Coalfield Justice, a nonprofit based south of Pittsburgh in Washington, Pa., that has focused on coal mining, said his work at attempting to rein in rampant coal development has made him suspicious of the fracking industry.

“We know their record,” Grenter said.

In Pittsburgh, the energy boom has forced leaders to think about what kind of economy they want. Pittsburgh weathered the recession better and recovered faster than most American cities because it already had been forced to diversify its economy after steel collapsed.

The natural gas boom in the Marcellus Shale helped, but the city’s economy benefited as well because of its status as a regional health care center; an estimated one in five private sector jobs relates to health care. No one sector of the economy is greater than 20 percent, including energy, said Philip Cynar of the pro-business Allegheny Conference on Community Development.

Among the worries in the business community: that academics and health care and finance professionals drawn to Pittsburgh because of its ranking as one of the nation’s most livable cities will abandon it if the air and water quality worsen.

“The issue of Marcellus gas drilling and particularly fracking has gone well beyond just the dyed-in-the-wool, self-identified environmentalists,” said Court Gould of Sustainable Pittsburgh, a public-policy advocacy group that looks for environmentally friendly ways to grow the economy. “The overarching concern is: Can we do things differently than in the past, as opposed to blindly maximizing opportunity without regard to short-term and long-term consequences?”

“This is our grand opportunity to learn from the past and to take a smarter approach forward,” Gould said. “So that the shale gas boom isn’t just another extension on our credit card, but rather use it to transition to a more sustainable, lower carbon, cleaner energy future.”

For many, that means finding a way to come to terms with a fracking boom that has become too big and too well developed to stop.

That’s why the Group Against Smog and Pollution, one of Pittsburgh’s oldest clean air watchdogs, decided to join the Environmental Defense Fund in the Center for Sustainable Shale Development. Joe Osborne, the group’s legal director, said he’s aware that some fellow environmentalists consider the group a sellout for having joined the partnership.

But he said GASP saw that the chance Pennsylvania would impose a ban on fracking was “pretty low” and that the state had concluded that emissions from drilling individual wells were too small and too scattered to regulate.

So GASP decided the better way to go was to make sure that the dozens of new compressor stations being built to move the gas through pipelines – the number went from 157 in July 2008 to 374 in January 2013 – met air quality standards required to win permits to operate. Such facilities emit nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, carbon monoxide and formaldehyde. They also burn natural gas, which releases the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

In at least two instances, the activists were able to catch errors in permits that underestimated the amount of toxic gases new compressor stations would emit. The result, said Osborne, is less likelihood that the compressor stations will affect the health of people living nearby.

“I don’t want to see kids waking up in the middle of the night with nosebleeds when this industry rolls into town,” Osborne said. “Really, it isn’t until you take a step back and look at all of these sources that you see how bad it is.”

There have been missteps elsewhere. In July, the Justice Department announced a settlement with XTO Energy Inc., a subsidiary of Exxon Mobil Corp. XTO was ordered to pay a $100,000 fine for spilling wastewater that had been used in fracking; the spill occurred after a valve was left open at a storage tank in Lycoming County, Pa.

XTO also was ordered to pay $20 million to improve wastewater management practices in preventing spills as well as recycling and properly disposing of wastewater generated from natural gas exploration and production activities in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The violation was discovered by Pennsylvania regulators, but the fine was a federal one and emerged out of a federal criminal investigation.

Nearly everyone is keeping an eye on the Obama administration’s proposed new fracking rules for federal lands. The administration hopes the rules will also be a model for state regulations on private lands, the site of most fracking.

The rules would set standards for well integrity as well as how to manage polluted water that flows back to the surface. It’s the first sweeping effort at federal oversight of the fracking boom. The proposed legislation has drawn more than 1.3 million comments. Oil and gas companies say the rules go too far; environmentalists and some members of Congress say they don’t go far enough.

In Pittsburgh, business leaders are hopeful whatever regulations emerge will prevent the kind of environmental pillaging that for decades gave this city the reputation of an industrial hell. In 1981, a new convention center in downtown Pittsburgh was built with its back to the Allegheny River and its windows small. It was still too soon to showcase Pittsburgh’s three rivers, which had served as the city’s sewers just a generation earlier.

Now, though, when the weather is warm, paddlers ply the Allegheny River on their lunch breaks, in bright yellow kayaks that have come to symbolize the environmental rebirth of a city. Baseball fans at the city’s riverfront stadium are occasionally startled by swarms of mayflies, an insect that only flourishes in clean water and represents diversity in aquatic life. Some river-goers have even spotted nesting bald eagles on a secluded stretch of the Monongahela River in Pittsburgh, before it joins with the Allegheny to form the Ohio.

Most telling, though, was the 2003 reopening of Pittsburgh’s convention center. Designers had made it face the river, with sweeping views.

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