For the first time ever, the US has the ability to become a major exporter of natural gas, courtesy of the fracking boom. Scientists, doctors, environmentalists and former industry insiders, however, are demanding time for researchers to first consider the potential impacts to local communities.
A former high-ranking Mobile Oil executive has joined more than 100 scientific and medical professionals in urging the Obama administration not to approve several proposed liquefied natural gas exporting facilitates that would expand the domestic demand for natural gas produced by the controversial, high-volume gas drilling technique known as "fracking."
The development of the massive natural gas export facilities would require a "rapid increase" in fracking operations, which have been linked to water, air and soil pollution as well as health problems in communities near the drilling rigs, according to a petition filed with the White House last week by Physicians, Scientists and Engineers for Healthy Energy (PSE).
The scientists and medical professionals warn against creating international demand for gas produced by the already rapidly expanding fracking industry, without first conducting widespread environmental and health impact studies to ensure the American public is safe.
"The question here is very simple. Why would the United States dramatically increase the use of an energy extraction method without first ensuring that the trade-off is not the health of Americans in exchange for the energy demands of foreign nations?" said Seth B. Shonkoff, PSE director and environmental researcher at the University of California at Berkeley.
The rapid expansion of unconventional fracking has produced a natural gas glut in the US, and last spring gas prices fell to the lowest level in a decade. Natural gas prices remain much higher in other countries, and fossil fuel firms are eager to sell American gas in foreign markets.
The Department of Energy (DOE) is currently reviewing applications for 15 additional export facilities proposed for coastlines across the country, and four additional proposals have yet to reach the DOE docket.
Together, these 19 facilities would export a combined total of 28.7 billion cubic feet of natural gas each day, more than a third of what is currently consumed in the US. Applications could be approved as early as January 2013.
The US historically has been a net importer of natural gas and currently does not have any liquefaction and export facilities. Earlier this year, the DOE granted initial approval for an export terminal on Louisiana's Gulf Coast that would export 2.2 billion cubic feet of natural gas each day
The construction of even a few of these export facilities would dramatically increase demand for domestic gas production and could make the US one of the largest natural gas exporters in the world, joining other fossil fuel export giants like Kuwait, Argentina, Iran and Venezuela.
PSE claims the export facilities would put increased economic pressure on the industry to expand unconventional fracking in rural areas already hit hard by development. The industry also would be under pressure to expand into new areas, like New York state, where temporary bans on fracking have allowed regulators and policy makers to take a much more cautious approach toward drilling than states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, where officials threw open their doors to the industry.
Former Oil Executive: Fracking is Drilling "On Steroids"
Advanced fracking technology has allowed gas drillers to uncover previously unavailable gas reserves from deep underground shale formations. The new technology, known as high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing, has quickly industrialized rural communities in states across the US and become one of America's most high profile environmental controversies.
The process involves pumping much higher volumes of water and chemicals into rock formations than traditional drilling. Louis Allstadt, the former executive vice president of Mobil Oil who signed the petition opposing new export facilities, said unconventional fracking is like traditional drilling "on steroids."
"All of this requires far greater industrial activity at the well site compared to conventional drilling, and that provides greater opportunity for methane gas and volatile compounds to enter the atmosphere, and well as opportunities for water laden with chemicals to enter drinking water supplies," Allstadt said. "It is new enough that we know little about the health impacts of the process for the people who live nearby, or for those whose drinking water and air quality might be affected."
Allstadt retired from Mobile Oil in 2000, before unconventional fracking became an industry standard for tapping previously unavailable gas reserves. He lives in Cooperstown, New York. Allstadt said he became concerned about fracking when he heard about a proposed drilling operation near the local lake that provides water to Cooperstown. After he learned about the new technology, and New York's embattled proposals to regulate drilling, Allstadt began speaking out at community meetings and in the media.
"I think it has moved really fast and before people really got a good handle on the technology," Allstadt said when asked by Truthout why a former oil executive would counter the industry's repeated claim that unconventional fracking is safe.
"I'm not the only who has been associated with the industry who has concerns," Allstadt said.
Environmentalists - and even industry insiders like Allstadt - say the full scope of potential environmental and health impacts of unconventional fracking remains unknown, but anecdotal evidence from across the country continues to suggest that fracking can contaminate groundwater and cause health problems in nearby communities.
"Researchers are finding measurable levels of pollutants from this industry in air and water that are associated with the risk of illness," said Adam Law, a PSE member and physician at the Cayuga Medical Center in Ithaca, New York. "The first studies to describe this are entering the scientific literature, and public health researchers are embarking on multiple approaches to study the associated adverse health effects."
Law said policymakers should wait for such research to be completed before approving export facilities that would cause a rapidly expanding industry to grow even faster. Fracking is common in medically underserved areas, he said, and rural communities do not stand to benefit directly or indirectly from expanding international export markets.
"In fact, for them, natural gas prices will only go up, and they will be left living with not only the stresses of the industrialization on their rural communities, but also with the legitimate concern that they will have to pay the price with their own physical health," Law said.
Another issue that must be addressed, according to PSE members, is the disposal of the massive volumes of wastewater created by fracking, which can contain fracking chemicals and underground brines laced with heavy and even radioactive metals.
Underground fracking wastewater disposal wells in Ohio and Arkansas have been linked to outbreaks of minor earthquakes, and groundwater contamination continues to be a concern among environmentalists.
Who Wins the Fracking Export Game?
Earlier this month, the Obama administration released a study showing that the economic benefits of exporting large quantities of natural gas far outweigh concerns that American consumers and industry would be left to pay more for natural gas as the domestic surplus from fracking goes overseas. The study claims that new export terminals would spur more drilling, create thousands of construction jobs and generate $47 billion in economic activity in 2020 alone.
The report quickly caught criticism from both environmentalists and domestic industries that rely on cheap natural gas.
Dow Chemical, which relies on natural gas for a list of industrial processes, expressed concerned about natural gas prices for domestic industry. Low natural gas prices have allowed the company to plan $4 billion in expansions in Texas and Louisiana.
"We're disappointed," said George Blitz, Dow's vice president of energy and climate change. "The report fails to take into account the $80 billion in new spending along with 3 to 5 million new jobs that the industrial sector has already announced predicated on available and low natural gas prices."
PSE cites government numbers showing that natural gas prices could rise as much as 53 percent if plans to build the massive export facilities go forward, and the group expects average Americans would end up paying more for electricity and consumer goods as well.
Environmentalists, however, see much deeper costs for the American people and their environment.
"The law requires the DOE to determine if more natural gas exports are in the public interest – so it is baffling that this report omits the serious threats increased fracking and gas production pose to our water, our air and the health of our families," said Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune. "Increased gas exports are expected to result in higher gas prices and lower wages for American families, meaning we pay the price here while the companies shipping gas overseas rake in the profits."
Reports suggest the Obama administration is not opposed to expanding exports despite pushback from environmentalists, some Democrats in Congress and politicians with ties to domestic industries. How many, if any, of the terminals will be approved remains to be seen. Meanwhile, researchers in the US continue to scramble across the drilling fields to understand the impacts of an unconventional industry that is quickly changing the way Americans live and do business.