Insights & Advice


Not in my backyard


The oil and gas boom in this country has had some serious side effects. Everything from earthquakes to polluted water has been blamed on the industry. Residents near the areas of hydraulic drilling and exploration are fighting back using the Environmental Protection Agency, lawsuits, lobbying and the media.  The challenge is separating fact from fiction in this on-going fight.

There is no question that there has been a remarkable increase in the number of earthquakes in the middle of the country, for example, or that an entire neighborhood of homes in Dimock, PA claimed it was threatened with explosive levels of methane gas. Twenty water wells in the same area, the site of natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale, showed the presence of sodium, methane, chromium or bacteria.

A recent documentary, “Gasland”, on HBO featured another Pennsylvania village caught in the controversy over America’s oil and natural gas boom. The movie allegedly uncovered the “secrets, lies and contamination” of natural gas drilling. As a result of the growing controversy three states—New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania—have called a moratorium on any further drilling or hydraulic fracturing for the time being. That is a big deal because the Marcellus Shale sits below those states and has enough natural gas to fuel this country for the next twenty years.

Environmentalists and people living near drilling sites are saying not in my backyard. They believe that attitude is justified since the risks are great and who can blame them?  I’m sure I would feel the same way if someone proposed to drill a well in the parking lot of my condo. The moratorium is needed, so its advocates argue, simply to study the impact of this drilling before people get hurt or sick. Naturally, the energy industry is arguing that the risks are small and that thousands upon thousands of wells have been drilled with no negative impact whatsoever. They have a point.

Take the earthquake issue, where a study by the U.S. Geological Survey identified a six- fold increase in man-made quakes in an area including Arkansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas. All the headlines pointed to natural gas drilling as the culprit. The gas guys were found guilty, strung up and buried before the survey team could come to a conclusion. Only then did the scientists admit that the quakes were not directly caused by hydraulic fracturing with one exception, one lone well in Arkansas.

The twenty “contaminated” wells in Pennsylvania I mentioned were later found by the EPA to present no threat to human health and the environment. As for the earth beneath the affected homes in Dimock, it did contain methane among other elements, but the EPA could not prove a connection between the contaminants and the oil and gas developments. In fact, they concluded that the presence of these elements could just as easily have been caused by naturally-occurring background levels or other unrelated activities.

I have learned that most studies tend to reflect the bias of those conducting them. In other words, you can make a study say anything you want given enough samples.  This battle, in my opinion, has already been won by the weight of public opinion.  A cessation of exploration will have a negative impact on the economies of all three states. At the same time, the declining price of gas will not justify continued drilling in a land of litigation. 

Free market capitalists might moan and argue that a person has the right to do whatever he wants with his property including fracking. On the other side, advocates will contend (rightfully so) that there is no such thing as zero-impact drilling. One’s decision to allow fracking in your backyard can and does directly impact my property next door.

The industry heightens the paranoia surrounding it by refusing  to disclose what potentially toxic chemicals (if any) are used in the drilling process. The regulations do not require disclosure so they won’t provide it. They are also exempt from EPA regulation thanks to the Bush Administration’s 2005 loophole legislation dubbed the “Halliburton Loophole” by opponents.

 As a result, all sorts of fears can be invoked (real or imagined) by any blogger or tree-hugging anarchist that wants to invent their own bizarre plot against humanity.  Is the nation’s watershed in jeopardy of contamination? Many environmentalists claim it could be impacting millions of unsuspecting Americans. Without the data, we don’t know. Others worry that in the vacuum caused by the absence of Federal regulation, undermanned and revenue starved state regulators are turning a blind eye to industry regulation.

Back in the day, when the United States was still a powerhouse  of industry, a growing and vocal group of concerned citizens began uncovering the seamier side of this formidable industrial base. We discovered that the by-products of these industries were causing enormous amounts of air and ground water pollution. At the same time, workers were coming down with all sorts of ailments from asbestos poisoning to cancer. Instead of helping the industrial sector transform itself into something more acceptable, we drove it away.

Politicians swooped in to pass bill after bill creating new safety standards, stricter codes and of course higher taxes on these bad boy industries. Industrial companies found themselves spending more time and money defending their practices from lawsuits, sit-ins and protests. In the end it wasn’t worth it.  They started looking for less hostile manufacturing locations abroad and found them.

Americans today lament the loss of that U.S. industrial base. We conveniently forget that part of the reason for that exodus was caused by a sea change in how we viewed those industries. Although the present challenges facing further gas drilling in our country should be taken seriously, let’s try not to apply the same “not in my backyard” attitude towards gas drilling that sent our industrial base packing in the past.

Posted in Macroeconomics, The Retired Advisor