If they can produce natural gas safely everywhere else, why not here?

Feb. 27, 2013 @ 01:28 PM

The debate in North Carolina during the past few years about how to extract deep underground petroleum resources near the center of our state is not easy to follow. While it’s not nearly as fun as squabbling about the Tar Heels, Wolves, Devils or Deacons, it’s an even more important conversation to have. A part of my career work included concerns about energy and fuels. We must keep in mind that every form of energy requires respect and a maximum effort toward safety. The focus of the conversation on developing our shale resources needs to be on all safety aspects, as well as opportunities and rights of property owners, their neighbors and citizens. 

These are clear facts: Using hydraulic fracturing to recover natural gas from shale is a proven technology, developed by George Mitchell. Since his initial work, more than a million wells in several countries have been completed using the technology. Improvements to the technology have also been made that make fracturing without significant amounts of water possible. North Carolina is learning how to proceed and will, I am sure, be successful by using scientific knowledge, engineering practices and relevant experiences in other states.

If that turns out to be the case, it could be very good news. In Pennsylvania, for example, Marcellus shale development has been going full steam since 2006, and today supports more than 200,000 direct and indirect jobs. On average, these jobs pay nearly $90,000 per year, wages that far exceed all other Pennsylvania industries, according to state data. While some may claim these jobs are fleeting, or are reserved for out-of-state workers, the truth is actually quite the opposite: Nearly 70 percent of these jobs are held by Pennsylvania residents.

Take Adam Diaz, a business owner in Susquehanna County, Pa., who was nearly bankrupt before shale development began. According to Adam, the activity, “help[ed] improve my businesses … to where for once for the last two years we had great cash flow.” In a recent interview, Adam noted that local development has enabled him to provide jobs for 120 local residents.

The benefits don’t end at the doorstep of small business. The companies actively developing the Marcellus have provided $1.6 billion in taxes and voluntary roadway improvements over the past couple years. This is in addition to the more than $1.2 billion paid to landowners in the state last year, money that has helped folks pay off their debt and allow family farmers to keep their land and invest in new equipment.

But it’s not just the local economic outlook that’s improved as a result of shale resource development – the environment has too. Earlier this month, the top environmental regulators in Pennsylvania announced that increased natural gas use is dramatically reducing air emissions in that state – an announcement echoed by the U.S. EPA, which cited natural gas as the reason GHG emissions are lower today in our country than they’ve been in 20 years.

And as for the safety of the hydraulic fracturing process, both the former (Democratic) and current (Republican) Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection secretaries have testified that “not one” single case of water contamination in that state has been the result of fracturing a well. Quite a record, when you consider they’ve been fracturing wells since the Truman administration.

It’s a record, incidentally, that continues to be cited by key members of President Obama’s cabinet — and even the president himself, most recently in his State of the Union address. As outgoing Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has noted, “There’s a lot of hysteria that takes place now with respect to hydraulic fracking; it can be done safely and has been done safely hundreds of thousands of times.” Maybe that’s why the president himself recently declared that “the natural gas boom has led to cleaner power and greater energy independence. We need to encourage that.”

Now, having had the opportunity to sit back and look around the past couple years, North Carolina has the ability now to put in place a regulatory regime that incorporates the very best of what’s in place elsewhere around the country. With a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work, the state will also have the opportunity to see some of the same benefits — the jobs, revenues, and environmental improvements — that continue to be realized all across the country.

Editor’s note: Robert Brickhouse holds an engineering degree from North Carolina State. During World War II, he completed the curricula for professional meteorology at University of California at Los Angeles as an Army Air Corps student, being awarded a commission upon finishing. Brickhouse had approximately six years of active duty with the U.S. Army Air Corps and during the Korean War with the U.S. Air Corps. Most of his industrial career was with Sanford Brick Corporation, planning, building and supervising four brick factories; working on improving the processes; and working with assorted fuels — coal, heavy oil, light oil, natural gas, propane and wood wastes — used for firing the eight continuous kilns, over 40 periodic round kilns, and mobile equipment for handling materials. Much of his attention was to fuel efficiency and improving insulation on kilns to reduce energy consumption. The work also included a number of projects pertaining to special products. After retiring, Brickhouse worked with an environmental service company for 18 months and worked on two projects for a brick company in Romania.