Praise for those who cross shale's fault lines

The quality of the debate over whether or how to tap shale gas and oil may have turned a corner this year as more groups and states find consensus-seeking ways to deal with the hard issues.

AP Photo
Anti-fracking activists link arms to resist police officers who were trying clear the road outside the entrance to a exploratory drilling site in Balcombe, England Aug 21.

Americans may not know it but other countries with shale deposits of gas or oil now look to the United States for leadership on two fronts:

One, how to best use the techniques of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”). And two, how to resolve the competing values of even tapping this abundant source of petroleum.

In large part because of fracking, the US is now on course to become the world’s largest producer of oil and natural gas, creating jobs in many areas and a hope of energy security for the nation. But the US has only begun the difficult task of finding a consensus on whether fracking’s hazards outweigh its benefits, and what to do about those hazards, such as methane release and water pollution.

Both sides in the debate have long armed themselves with studies, polls, pressure groups, and even movies to promote or prohibit fracking. Local citizens living over shale formations are often at a loss, perhaps fearing the potential health effects while eyeing the potential wealth bonanza.

But some courageous individuals in the energy industry and among environmentalists have reached out with respect and dispassion to listen to each other in hopes of finding a fact-based consensus.

Last spring, for example, a coalition of gas developers, green activists, and foundations started the Center for Sustainable Shale Development to certify fracking companies that want to implement high standards for protecting air quality, water resources, and climate.

The center’s aim is to imitate the success of the independent certification regime for green buildings known as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED. The first certifications are now in the works.

Another example is a law passed last month in California that strikes a middle ground in both allowing and regulating fracking. With the state’s Monterey Shale formation perhaps able to produce 15.4 billion barrels of oil, Gov. Jerry Brown (D) backed the measure, taking a moderate approach in balancing contending interests.

Only two years ago, California passed a law requiring the state to be using 33 percent renewable energy by 2020. But in now setting up a favorable regulatory scheme for shale oil production, it is showing how one state can have a healthy debate over rational management of productive resources and the environment.

Local differences in shale exploitation – such as geological structure and water resources – almost dictate local or state solutions on whether to ban it (as New York has done twice) or to regulate fracking with effective rules. The quality of the debate – a dialogue among listeners rather than a Washington-style clash of power plays – could serve as a model as more countries move to either tap this resource or ban its use.

In August, another consensus-seeking group, the Shale Gas Roundtable, issued a 139-page report with a number of recommendations. One of its strongest suggestions is to set up a fund to do independent research on shale exploitation. Too many studies are funded by the industry or environmental groups, leading to a perceived bias in much of the data.

Trust is the first requirement in resolving such disputes. The past year has seen the US make great progress in settling the future of shale fuels. Other nations are watching, eager for a model on how to deliberate the value of shale in both its possible harms and expected benefits.

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