In the ever polarized world of energy policy, the shale gas boom has been a rare beacon of hope. People who worry about U.S. dependence on imported fuel have hailed it as key to U.S. energy security. Many of those who are concerned about climate change have welcomed it as a low-carbon alternative to coal.
But while policymakers have been busy dreaming about a gas-rich future, too many have missed a gathering storm. As the shale boom migrates from industry-friendly states like Texas and Louisiana to new frontiers like New York and Pennsylvania, it is encountering an increasingly skeptical public. Meanwhile, environmental organizations are looking to recover from their ill-fated drive for cap-and-trade, and opposition to shale gas development presents both a ready villain and a real chance of victory. Yet the response of industry to this threat has been largely ham-handed: instead of pre-empting public concern by embracing constructive regulation, too many have chosen to dig in and fight every possible constraint. They would be wise to change course.
The narrative has coalesced around fears that hydraulic-fracturing (fracking) fluids could contaminate vital water supplies. There is little reason to believe that fracking is inherently unsafe. (A thorough EPA study of the practice, about to get underway, should help clarify the situation.) But there are legitimate concerns that irresponsible producers could foul things up. Any danger to water supplies, in particular, may be less from fracking itself than from sloppy wastewater disposal and clumsy drilling. And since the shale gas industry includes many relatively small and unsophisticated operators, these risks are real.