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A reasoned look — so far July 24, 2010

Posted by WillardWhyte in Economy, Energy, Environment.
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Going to go back to my business today while other avenues percolate a bit, and some of the chemicals in my bloodstream try to wrestle back to equilibrium. I really want to talk more about the highway, but I haven’t quite steadied that up yet.

So instead I’m going to meander and start with this one, a tale of something that needs to happen — extracting vast stores of natural gas from a giant shale formation beneath Appalachia — and rightful concerns — about the use of a mix of water, sand and undisclosed chemicals to “fracture” the formation and force the gas into recovery equipment.

We need that gas — to power factories, heat homes, generate electricity and, maybe, if Boone Pickens has a clue, to fuel a portion of the cars of the future. It burns, to be sure, so there are emissions to deal with. But we can do that too. Better than coal, better than oil and — here, not there.

But the drillers really need to stand on their heads to get at it and bring it home, as the Times story about an EPA fact-finding hearing in Pennsylvania the other night describes pretty well. There are some significant concerns about what impact all that injection of fluids is having — and will have — on underground water supplies that bubble up into streams, shallow water tables used for drinking water and crop irrigation and so forth.

It appears that, right now, we really don’t know. From this story and others, there is enough smoke to suggest that the impact isn’t entirely innocent. And the lessons we are painfully learning from the Gulfy Gusher come quickly to mind: If we are going to tap into something like this, and there is even an outside chance that doing so will heavily impact millions of lives, thousands of unrelated businesses and livelihoods and do damage to a shared future, there is a compelling public interest in stationing a reasonable cop on the beat.

Not to go all hysterical. To check it out, study it expertly and neutrally with all parties at the table and plenty of “peer review” applied to any and all “studies” and see what needs to be in place to minimize the risk of the “worst-case scenario,” anticipate reaction to a bad result and generally come up with some “dos and don’ts.” Some of the latter surely need to have teeth.

At the moment, the discussion seems to be moving on a solid track. One of the companies up in Pennsylvania — Range Resources — recently pledged to provide the EPA with a list of all chamicals it uses in its injection cocktail and to post it for public review on its website. Right now, what’s in those stews is known only to the companies jamming the stuff deep into the rock formations. This attitude is spot-on:

“We should have done this a long time ago,” said Matt Pitzarella, a spokesman for Range Resources, a Texas-based natural gas producer. “There are probably no health risks with the concentrations that we’re utilizing. But if someone has that concern, then it’s real and you have to address it.”

But people are people and, you know, I’d like to just roll my Harley downtown and leave the keys jangling in the ignition and not have to lug them around while I shop. But it’s not a good idea because I know that a lot of people will just walk on by and respect me, but some won’t. So I take the keys.

So we can’t depend on the cowboys with the white hats, though you surely want a lot of Pitzarellas at the table. And to have a thorough discussion in the public’s behalf, you probably want this guy too:

“There is extraordinary economic potential associated with the development of Marcellus Shale resources,” said Rep. Joe Sestak, Democrat of Pennsylvania, in a statement Friday announcing $1 million for a federal study of water use impacts in the Delaware Water Basin. However, “there is also great risk.” He said, “One way to ensure proper development is to understand the potential impacts.”

And there also needs to be a place for this guy:

“I can take you right now to my neighbors who have lost their water supplies,” said Dencil Backus, a resident of nearby Mt. Pleasant Township, at Thursday night’s hearing to the handful of E.P.A. regulators on hand. “I can take you also to places where spills have killed fish and other aquatic life. Corporations have no conscience. The E.P.A. must give them that conscience.”

Yeah, someone like him needs to be at the table, even though he might not follow all the science, or the economic modeling — or the politics (no offense Dencil). He needs to be there to be looking into the eyes of all the others.

Because he’s right: As I’ve said, corporations are not people; they are legal entities set up to conduct a business and make money for the owners. They are not going to see the big picture, the “we the people” perspective. That’s one reason why we need cops.

Again as I’ve said before, if we all don’t have a reasonable, legitimate and considered plan, we’re going to get BP’s.

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