In the last few years, every time I visited Towanda, PA, truck traffic jammed main roads and hotels and apartments were under construction. Last week, I whizzed into town and noted that Chesapeake Energy’s headquarters is now a childcare center and dance studio.
Small signs of changing times? Undoubtedly, the rapid pace of the shale gas boom has slowed enough to make it look like the inevitable bust has arrived in some places, from northeast Pennsylvania to Arkansas. With continued low gas prices, some producers are balancing their books by stiffing landowners, unloading leases in both drilled and not-drilled areas, and moving operations to more profitable regions. And with lower per-well production levels nationwide, the shale bubble could already be deflating.
But there’s still plenty of hot air and positive thinking to keep investors going. Hopes are being pinned on drilling ever-more wells and developing the facilities needed to process gas and gas liquids and move them to markets both in the United States and overseas.
Which is why many frontline communities are bracing for the next wave of impacts. It’s also why opposition to compressor stations, pipelines, processing plants, and export terminals is rising, as citizens seek to stem the risks posed by increasing the number and locations of polluting facilities.
In contrast, regulators and policymakers just keep throwing caution to the wind. In a reflection of the mainstream bias in the debate over fracking, they ignore well-grounded evidence of harm from health experts, organizations like Earthworks, independent scientists, and academic institutions.
For example, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (WVDEP) recently concluded that new rules to control emissions from oil and gas operations aren’t needed—even though only limited, short-term monitoring has been conducted in the state and a host of data are still awaited.
Nationally, the US Environmental Protection Agency recently lowered its estimates of methane emissions from oil and gas operations—just a few months after an internal agency watchdog report concluded that estimates of air emissions that impact health may be way off due to data gaps and an expanding industry.
Within the complex and growing web of shale gas development, big changes are underway—but unless governments, operators, and shareholders pay more attention, act on new information, and care about prevention, the status quo will remain: individuals and communities bearing the burden of worsening air, water, and health and the high costs of dirty energy.