Energy answers lie in shale beds

By Jim Constantopolous: Guest columnist

As the United States begins to pull out of the worst economic crisis since the end of World War II, energy policy has taken on increasing importance.

President Obama has called on Congress to pass legislation that would reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil.

The administration is correct in doing so.

Every effort should be made to expand the use of a diverse mix of low-carbon, domestic energy sources, the most important being clean coal and natural gas.

Thanks to a drilling technology known as hydraulic fracturing, it’s now possible to recover immense quantities of natural gas safely and efficiently from shale beds across Appalachia, the Great Plains and northern Louisiana, Texas and New Mexico.

Together they hold an estimated 850 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, enough to meet America’s needs for decades.

Natural gas is shaping up to play a major role in the effort to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. But some members of Congress are less than thrilled with the prospect of a big shift to natural gas.

Claiming that drinking water systems are at risk from chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, they have proposed legislation to transfer regulation of the process from state governments to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Not one to pass up an opportunity to expand EPA’s oversight of the energy sector, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has directed the agency to determine whether hydraulic fracturing poses a danger to groundwater systems.

Hydraulic fracturing — commonly known as “fracking” — involves pumping water, sand and chemicals under very high pressure into shale formations to crack open the rock and release trapped deposits of natural gas.

Hydraulic fracturing for natural gas has been in use since the early 1940s, but recent advances in horizontal drilling have enabled energy companies to make use of it in recovering natural gas from deep shale beds.

Energy companies are continuing to invest billions of dollars in drilling technology. Natural gas wells are well-engineered and constructed, using steel and specially formulated concrete to ensure the safety of drinking water supplies.

Hydraulic fracturing, moreover, is done far below the level of any groundwater. Consequently, reports of groundwater problems from hydraulic fracturing have been very rare.

State governments do a commendable job in regulating hydraulic fracturing, and there’s no reason why they won’t continue to do so. Still missing is any evidence of what the American public would gain in the way of environmental and health benefits from shifting fracturing regulation to EPA.

On the other hand, what an additional overlay of federal regulations might do is cause delays and raise the cost of producing natural gas by as much as $100,000 per well.

It’s possible that EPA might ban hydraulic fracturing altogether. In that event, natural gas production in the United States would drop 45 percent within five years, according to an industry study, and thousands of jobs would be lost.

It’s time to recognize the importance of natural gas in our daily lives. Sixty percent of American homes use natural gas for heating and cooking. And since natural gas is an increasingly important fuel for electricity generation and a prime feedstock for the chemical industry, any collapse in production would reverberate throughout the economy.

Working to realize the full potential of natural gas for powering the future offers the Southwest a significant technical and financial opportunity.

Hydraulic fracturing is safe and reliable. We owe our bountiful supplies of natural gas to it.