- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 20, 2011

Reliance on politically unstable countries for energy imports puts America at the mercy of the pendulumlike swings in the commodities market. Gas and oil prices shoot upward practically every time a disruptive event elsewhere in the world (civil unrest, tropical storms, etc.) causes investors to fear that those imports may be curtailed. It’s one of the reasons crude now stands at $84 per barrel.

Although a multitude of factors influence energy prices, one way to help mitigate U.S. vulnerability to these fluctuations involves developing the energy resources within our borders.

Based on recently updated estimates by the U.S. Geological Survey as well as the Energy Information Administration, America’s recoverable natural gas reserves - 2,300 to 2,600 trillion cubic feet - are enough to power the country for a century and likely well beyond.

But obstacles abound.

Hydraulic fracturing, the technique responsible for expanding the amount of gas extractable from shale, has drawn criticism over unsubstantiated claims that it contaminates groundwater supplies. In fact, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson recently confirmed that she was unaware “of any proven case where the fracking process itself has affected water.”

Forecasts of shale development’s benefits, unlike the claims of menace, have proved true.

In the past 10 years, Pennsylvania has witnessed 15,000 wells drilled at an average of 62 jobs and $5.46 million in economic output per well. In Texas, 132,000 people are directly employed developing natural gas and tens of thousands more jobs are created indirectly. In 2008, the booming industry generated $13.7 billion in economic output in the state.

Even states without substantial or even any shale gas resources are reaping benefits from the boom. In Iowa, Pattison Sand Co. sprang up to supply silica sand, a necessary ingredient in drilling fluid to hold cracks open. The company employs 50 people and ships about $100,000 worth of sand daily. Texas, Oklahoma and states across the Midwest are all seeing a high demand for the sand. In Ohio, a new steel plant recently came online, manufacturing the piping required for drilling and employing 400 people in the process.

In New Jersey, chemical companies are seeing unexpected growth riding the coattails of the natural gas industry. The drilling byproduct ethane has been a leading factor in pushing the Dow Jones U.S. Chemical Index up 50 percent in the past year. That’s one of many reasons why Gov. Chris Christie’s decision to conditionally veto a bill banning hydraulic fracturing was a vital one.

The Garden State was poised to be the first state in the nation to place an outright ban on the process, so a ban - though largely symbolic because the state has little in the way of gas reserves - would have carried broad repercussions for the rest of the Northeast and the nation as a whole.

By responding with a conditional veto, the governor managed to save the state from the fallout of such a ban while also giving his colleagues in the state legislature time to closely review regulations already ensuring safe energy production in other regions. In doing so, Mr. Christie set the tone for a state-centric regulatory structure for natural gas drilling as opposed to a top-down method from the federal government.

Mr. Christie’s decision reflects confidence in the ability of state officials to research and devise regulations best suited to their states’ unique geographical and economic situations. On the other hand, the environmental activist faction’s push for a drawn-out review at the federal level would shift regulatory power to those least responsive to actual conditions on the ground. If shale gas drilling gets caught up in convoluted federal approval processes, job creation will stall and needed domestic energy resources will lie dormant underground.

The message Mr. Christie’s veto sends is one other state and national officials should heed because we simply cannot let politics undermine the promise of natural gas here in America. Its viability is as real as its capacity to fortify our energy demand.

While an engineering degree may be helpful for fully understanding the nuances of the hotly debated hydraulic fracturing technique, ignorance toward natural gas development is not bliss. If nothing else, the hundred-year supply of gas the United States possesses will do wonders to temper energy price fluctuation stemming from global turbulence - an effect of substantially greater value than a symbolic ban fueled by eco-activism.

Michael C. Lynch, former director at MIT’s Center for International Studies, is president of Strategic Economic and Energy Research.

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