The intense, exclusive focus on drilling crowds out critical information about our energy choices that causes a thinking malfunction. Drilling is not and never will be zero impact, even with strong regulation that is an imperative.
But a judgment about the environmental impact of gas drilling cannot be reasonably made without genuinely facing what the consequences of banning drilling and fracking would be for our environment and public health. Those thinking about the wisdom of a ban must come to grips with these facts:
All fossil fuels--coal, oil, and natural gas--have very different environmental foot prints. Period. And America runs primarily on coal and oil today, the two dirtiest fuels.
Yet, banning natural gas drilling and fracking would insure that natural gas prices hit the moon and a surge in coal use and possibly oil. Natural gas would lose market share and no longer provide 24% of our electricity or 51% of our home heating.
Just as damaging to the environment, a ban would mean losing the environmental prize that can now be won of replacing, refueling with gas, or closing quickly at least the one third of coal fired power plants that are 40 plus years old with no or few pollution controls and of decreasing oil's 90% share of our transportation fuel.
Here are just a few of the overwhelming facts:
Coal plants provide 45% of our electricity but are responsible for 98% of mercury emissions from electric power plants and 46% of total mercury emissions. Coal plants are responsible for 40% of total Hazardous Air Pollutants emissions (from all sources)
Coal plants are responsible for 98% of sulfur dioxide emissions from electric power plants and 86% of nitrogen dioxide pollution.
Natural gas has zero mercury emissions. Natural gas has essentially zero soot. It emits considerably less sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide.
And it emits about 50% less carbon dioxide on a life cycle basis according to a February 2011 NETL study (more on this topic soon).
Simply put, banning natural gas drilling and fracking would mean more mercury, hazardous air pollutants, smog, soot, water damage. All that when already power plant pollution, mainly from the 40-year and older coal plants with few environmental controls, is killing up to 36,000 Americans per year. A ban would be a public health disaster.
The intense focus on drilling runs the risk of causing a loss of memory about the huge impacts on water from coal and oil. Just consider in Pennsylvania the coal ash impoundment that collapsed in 2005 and polluted the Delaware river or the major oil spill from a tanker again on the Delaware river. Please don't forget the huge oil plume under a large portion of Philadelphia or the substantial pollution of ground water by MTBE or the 3,000 underground oil storage tanks just in Pennsylvania that are abandoned and threatening water supplies. Or the daily spills of oil big and small around the state.
The worst mining impacts are no doubt the 500 mountain tops "removed" and the 1200 miles of streams buried as a result in Appalachia. But that is just the very worst. The worst fish kill in recent Pennsylvania history, The Dunkard Creek disaster, was caused by a coal mining discharge in West Virginia.
The right course for the environment and our health is to regulate strongly natural gas drilling to reduce its impacts; use more natural gas, less coal, less oil; and accelerate renewables and energy efficiency.