Sustained Outrage

The Marcellus Boom: How much shale gas is there?

Protesters stand in front of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia before an appearance by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson Friday Jan. 13, 2012.  Residents of the small northeastern Pennsylvania town of Dimock,  at the center of the political fight over natural gas drilling, joined environmental activists from elsewhere to rally Friday outside a conference on urban environmental issues.   About a dozen residents of Dimock have sued Cabot Oil & Gas Corp., claiming the energy company caused contamination of wells when it extracted natural gas using a process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.  (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)

While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency steps in to protect water supplies for the people of the Pennsylvania town of Dimock from natural gas drilling, West Virginia lawmakers are right now debating the huge tax breaks that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin wants to offer to try to lure a natural gas “cracker” plant to our state to further the Marcellus Shale drilling boom.

We’ve written before about questions regarding the governor’s proposal, and about his overstating the potential job impacts of this sort of a facility. It’s clear that West Virginia and surrounding states are going to fall all over themselves trying to come up with giveaways for the cracker (despite questions about whether such programs are built on a strong foundation to protect the public’s investment, as these reports from Good Jobs first suggest).

But how sustainable is the Marcellus Shale boom?

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.,  has told us:

We all know that Marcellus Shale could truly be a game-changer for our great state. We are literally sitting on top of tremendous potential with the Marcellus Shale, and we need to work together to chart a path forward in a safe and responsible way that allows us to produce energy right here in America and create good-paying jobs for hard-working Americans.

The potential of Marcellus is truly remarkable. From an energy-development standpoint, we are on the cusp of something that could help us reduce our dangerous dependence on foreign oil that threatens both our national security and our economic security. It’s so important that we develop our resources here at home, rather than continuing to rely on countries that don’t like us very much and wish to do us harm.

Still, serious questions are being asked — not by political leaders, of course — about all of this. Some of these are summarized clearly in a piece by Chris Nelder for the online magazine Slate:

The recent press about the potential of shale gas would have you believe that America is now sitting on a 100-year supply of natural gas. It’s a “game-changer.” A “golden age of gas” awaits, one in which the United States will be energy independent, even exporting gas to the rest of the world, upending our current energy-importing situation.

The data, however, tell a very different story. Between the demonstrable gas reserves, and the potential resources blared in the headlines, lies an enormous gulf of uncertainty.

We don’t yet know how much of the estimated gas resources will be economically recoverable or whether the projected production rates for some wells might be off by a factor of 10. We might have a 100-year supply of gas, or we might have an 11-year supply. We might realize economic and environmental benefits by transitioning trucking and coal-fired power generation to natural gas, or we might do so only to find ourselves out on a limb far more economically dangerous than the current peak and impending decline of world oil supply. We simply don’t know, and we may not know for years to come.

Wonder if Sen. Manchin will hold a field hearing to address these questions …