Is the Marcellus boom a good idea?

February 16, 2011 by Ken Ward Jr.

West Virginia political leaders and their campaign spinmeisters are furiously promoting the boom in drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale. Folks seem to be eager to count the money that might be generated.

We’re hearing less from most of them about legislation that the state’s environmental protection secretary, Randy Huffman, has said is urgently needed to regulate this drilling.

With that backdrop, there was a fascinating report released last month by the respected Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at Manchester University. The report examines the question of whether the U.K. should advance drilling into shale gas formations. In trying to find answers, U.K. scientists looked at what’s happened so far in the United States in the Marcellus Shale.

Citing concerns about water pollution, public health and — most of all, climate change — the report questions the whole idea that this natural gas boom is a good thing, saying:

…In an energy hungry world, any new fossil fuel resource will only lead to additional carbon emissions. In the case of shale gas there is also a significant risk its use will delay the introduction of renewable energy alternatives.

Professor Kevin Anderson at the Tyndall Centre said:

Consequently, if we are serious in our commitment to avoid dangerous climate change, the only safe place for shale gas remains in the ground.

A well site during a single hydraulic fracturing operation. Photo from Tyndall Center report.

Regarding potential water pollution and water use issues, the report has this to say:

It is clear however, that while shale gas extraction, at a global level, does not involve the high energy and water inputs at the scale of other unconventional fuels, such as oil derived from tar sands, it does pose significant potential risks to human health and the environment. Principally, the potential for hazardous chemicals to enter groundwater via the extraction process must be subject to more thorough research prior to any expansion of the industry being considered.


Evidence from the US suggests shale gas extraction brings a significant risk of ground and surface water contamination and until the evidence base is developed a precautionary approach to development in the UK and Europe is the only responsible action. The depth of shale gas extraction gives rise to major challenges in identifying categorically pathways of contamination of groundwater by chemicals used in the extraction process. An analysis of these substances suggests that many have toxic, carcinogenic or other hazardous properties. There is considerable anecdotal evidence from the US that contamination of both ground and surface water has occurred in a range of cases.

And as for climate change:

… While being promoted as a transition route to a low carbon future, none of the available evidence indicates that this is likely to be the case. It is difficult to envisage any situation other than shale gas largely being used in addition to other fossil fuel reserves and adding a further carbon burden. This could lead to an additional 11ppmv of CO2 over and above expected levels without shale gas – a figure that could rise if more of the total shale gas resource were to be exploited than envisaged in the scenarios. This would be compounded if investment in shale gas were to delay the necessary investment in zero and very low carbon technologies.

More specifically:

Measured across their respective lifecycles the CO2 emissions from shale gas are likely to be only marginally higher than those from conventional gas sources. Nevertheless, there is little evidence from data on the US that shale gas is currently, or expected to, substitute, at any significant level for coal use. By contrast, projections suggest it will continue to be used in addition to coal in order to satisfy increasing energy demand. If carbon emissions are to reduce in line with the Copenhagen Accord’s commitment to 2°C, urgent decarbonisation of electricity supply is required. This need for rapid decarbonisation further questions any role that shale gas could play as a transitional fuel as it is yet to be exploited commercially outside the US. In addition, it is important to stress that shale gas would only be a low-carbon fuel source if allied with, as yet unproven, carbon capture and storage technologies.


Without a meaningful cap on emissions of global GHGs, the exploitation of shale gas is likely to increase net carbon emissions. In an energy-hungry world, where GDP growth continues to dominate political agendas and no effective and stringent constraint on total global carbon emissions is in place, the exploitation of an additional fossil fuel resource will likely increase energy use and associated emissions. This will further reduce any slim possibility of maintaining global temperature changes at or below 2°C and thereby increase the risk of entering a period of ‘dangerous climate change’. If uptake of shale gas were to match that used in the global scenarios associated increases in emissions would result in additional atmospheric concentration of CO2 of 3-11ppmv by 2050.

Rapid carbon reductions require major investment in zero-carbon technologies and this could be delayed by exploitation of shale gas. The investment required to exploit shale gas will be substantial. In relation to reducing carbon emissions this investment would be much more effective if targeted at genuinely zero- (or very low) carbon technologies. If money is invested in shale gas then there is a real risk that this could delay the development and deployment of such technologies.

I don’t know if these issues or this report will be on the agenda for Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s new “task force” to promote Marcellus development, but there is a public hearing on drilling regulatory legislation tomorrow at 3:30 p.m. in the House Chamber. The West Virginia Environmental Council has issued this list of measures it believes are essential to include in any bill.

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