Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) is often called upon by those opposed to natural gas development to support a ban or moratorium on drilling. They argue that fighting for tough regulations, as EDF is doing, helps ensure that natural gas development will take place. Some of our friends in the environmental community have questioned why we are working on natural gas at all. They suggest that we should simply oppose natural gas development, and focus solely on championing energy efficiency and renewables. We understand these concerns, and respect the people who share them. And for that reason, we want to be as clear as we can be as to why EDF is so deeply involved in championing strong regulation of natural gas.

Our view on natural gas is shaped by three basic facts. First, hydraulic fracturing is already a common practice in the oil and gas industry. Over 90% of new onshore oil and gas development taking place in the United States today involves some form of hydraulic fracturing, and shale gas accounts for a rapidly increasing percentage of total natural gas production—from 16% in 2009 to more than 30% today. In short, hydraulic fracturing is not going away any time soon.

Second, this fight is about much more than the role that natural gas may play in the future of electricity supply in the United States. Natural gas is currently playing an important role in driving out old coal plants, and we are glad to see these coal plants go. On balance, we think substituting natural gas for coal can provide net environmental value, including a lower greenhouse gas footprint. We are involved in an ambitious study to measure methane leakage across the value chain, and we’re advocating for leak reduction in order to maximize natural gas’ potential carbon benefit. We share the community’s concern that we not lose sight of the importance of energy efficiency and renewables, and are working hard to see that these options become preferred alternatives to natural gas over time. 

Gas Is Not Going Away

But even if we were able to eliminate demand for natural gas–fired electricity, our economy would still depend heavily on this resource. Roughly two-thirds of natural gas produced in the U.S. is used as a feedstock for chemicals, pharmaceuticals and fertilizer, and for direct heating and cooling. Natural gas is entrenched in our economy, and championing renewables and energy efficiency alone is not enough to address the environmental impacts associated with producing it.

Third, current natural gas production practices impose unacceptable impacts on air, water, landscapes and communities. These impacts include exposure to toxic chemicals and potential groundwater contamination (due to faulty well construction or unsafe disposal of drilling wastewater), harmful local and regional air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions from unnecessary fugitive methane emissions and negative effects on communities and ecosystems. Whatever economic and environmental benefits natural gas may provide should never take precedence over or compromise the public’s right to clean water and clean air.

Safe Development Is Possible 

Our analysis has led us to conclude that there are many ways to eliminate hazards and reduce risks from hydraulic fracturing and related “unconventional” oil and gas production practices. Strong rules that require these steps to be taken are needed, backed up by effective oversight and enforcement with the necessary financial and human resources to make these efforts real. 

We also believe there are certain places where natural gas development should never be allowed, and we fully support the rights of local communities to regulate when and where this intensive industrial activity may take place, much as they would any other commercial or industrial activity in their community. In states like New York, which have little or no experience in regulating modern oil and gas development, we believe it is important to take the time needed to develop strong regulations with the resources necessary to implement and enforce them before commercial-scale development should be allowed.

Since the details of the New York State natural gas plan have not yet been released, EDF has not taken a position on whether New York is ready to regulate hydraulic fracturing properly. Among the many things we will be looking for is how deeply the plan honors the principle of local self-determination. When the plan is made public, our experts will study it and we will make a judgment as to whether the new rulemaking does enough to protect public health, communities and ecosystems. Only then will we be able to reply to those who have urged us to join calls for a continued New York State moratorium.

Blanket Opposition to Gas Is Counterproductive

Demand for natural gas is not going away, and neither is hydraulic fracturing. We must be clear-eyed about this, and fight to protect public health and the environment from unacceptable impacts. We must also work hard to put policies in place that ensure that natural gas serves as an enabler of renewable power generation, not an impediment to it. We fear that those who oppose all natural gas production everywhere are, in effect, making it harder for the U.S. economy to wean itself from dirty coal.

Natural gas production can never be made entirely safe; like any intensive industrial activity, it involves risks. But having studied the issue closely, we are convinced that if tough rules, oversight and penalties for noncompliance are put in place, these risks become manageable.

Calling for a ban is simply not enough. Just as we respect those who choose to advocate for a moratorium, we invite our allies to join us in the battle to enact strong rules that protect our air, water, landscapes and communities. The stakes are high and the opposition is stiff, but we can and will succeed.

—Mark Brownstein is chief counsel, Energy Program, for the Environmental Defense Fund. This piece was originally published on the EDF blog.