For economic growth and the thousands of jobs that would be created, Ohio needs to capitalize on its vast reserves of "unconventional" natural gas, namely coal-bed methane and shale gas. We can develop both, since a large part of eastern Ohio is underlain by shale formations like the Marcellus Shale and Utica Shale, and by several coals seams.
Compared to coal and even fuel oil, natural gas is a relatively low-emission source of energy. We need to be particularly mindful of the important role that switching to natural gas for power generation and transportation can play in carbon mitigation and maintaining clean air.
The challenge is to counteract the vastly overblown claims by opponents that natural gas drilling endangers drinking water resources. Certainly we need effective regulation to protect groundwater systems, but some opponents to drilling want to impose a complete ban on hydraulic fracturing, citing the "risks" associated with it, despite the fact that it is a technology that's been put to safe and efficient use in the United States for more than 60 years.
There have been a few isolated instances where groundwater has been fouled as a result of the improper discharge of wastewater from natural gas drilling, but state agencies have tightened their regulation and now have the matter under control. No good would come from transferring regulatory oversight to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The states - and they include Texas, New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia as well as Ohio, where hydraulic fracturing is done routinely - do an excellent job of regulation.
It's important to recognize there are risks associated with every human endeavor and with every fuel source that supplies energy to meet our needs: coal mines collapse, pipelines rupture, reactors fail, and valleys flood. The production of unconventional natural gas - whether shale or coal-bed methane - is no riskier than the alternatives and arguably much safer.
Contrary to popular thinking, coal-bed methane is a potentially valuable resource. Historically, it was viewed as one of the primary dangers in coal mining due to its highly flammable nature. But a technique has been developed to direct the methane gas, once it has been released from the coal seam, into a well where it flows to the surface, then compressed and transported through natural gas pipelines. The technology being effectively used elsewhere in the Appalachian Basin, namely long horizontal wells drilled from the surface, is the same technology being used to recover natural gas from shale formations.
Increasing the production of coal-bed methane and shale gas - both of which are plentiful in Ohio - would create thousands of new jobs, produce lease and royalty payments for landowners, revenue for state and local governments, and foster economic growth. In addition, the production of methane from coal seams has the secondary benefit of making mining operations safer by reducing the potential for explosions.
It is well known that natural gas emits approximately 60 percent less carbon dioxide than coal. And it doesn't pollute the air with mercury and other toxic chemicals that harm public health and the environment. The question of whether natural gas should replace coal in electricity production is not if, but when. A good start would be to retire a number of aging and inefficient coal plants and replace them with natural gas-fired plants.
Considering estimates that the United States has a 100-year supply of natural gas, a switch to gas could provide the clean energy economy that environmentalists are pushing for. In fact, there are estimates that just switching America's fleet of over 18 million heavy trucks to natural gas would cut our imports of foreign oil by nearly 2 million barrels per day. This can be done without the heavy hand of government mandates and subsidies that solar and wind energy development require.
But it's important not to burden natural gas companies with a new layer of regulatory red tape or higher taxes, either of which will drive investment away. The recent decision of the Delaware River Basin Commission to impose a moratorium on natural gas drilling in several Pennsylvania counties is likely to deter companies from operating there. We don't want that to happen here in Ohio too.
Working to realize the full potential of natural gas for stimulating economic growth in Ohio offers a significant opportunity. We need to adopt policies that will encourage, not retard, its production.
Bob Chase is chair and professor of the Department of Petroleum Engineering and Geology at Marietta College, 215 Fifth St., Marietta.