Sunday, April 17, 2011

Gas Drilling, Sustainability, Energy Policy

More than 500 scientists, environmental attorneys, gas industry representatives and others, some from as far as Colorado and Texas, participated in the Cornell Environmental Law Society’s energy conference held April 1 – 2. This year’s conference focused on gas drilling, sustainability and energy policy.

Ben Tettlebuam, second-year law student and conference organizer, opened the conference by asking that people from all sides of the issue look for common ground - or at least listen to what each other has to say in a respectful manner. During a pre-conference discussion with some of the speakers it became clear that finding common ground could be more difficult than anticipated.

Too often the issue is presented as a choice between gas and coal, said Bill Podulka. Podulka, who chairs Residents Opposing Unsafe Shale-gas Extraction (ROUSE), would like to see the conversation about drilling expanded.  In the ten or twenty or even thirty years it takes to fully develop the Marcellus shale, we could be developing renewable energy sources, he says.

Bill Podulka, ROUSE chairman
“There is a misperception that these technologies aren’t ready,” Podulka said. He noted that off-the-shelf technologies exist for wind and solar that, if implemented now, could provide up to 15 percent of this country’s energy needs.

“The problem is where the capital comes from. Right now the money is being invested in gas,” Podulka said. “Government investment in alternatives would buy us a healthier society.”

“I categorically deny that” interjected Michael Joy, an attorney who represents and promotes gas industry interests through the Independent Oil and Gas Association of NY (IOGA-NY). Gas, he stressed, needs to be part of whatever “energy suite” policy makers consider. Renewables might potentially contribute 2 to 10 percent of energy needs, but the big stumbling block is lack of storage.

Norse Energy Vice President Dennis Holbrook seconded that, explaining that as attractive as renewable energy looks, it just isn’t reliable enough for companies to add to their energy portfolios. Battery storage is the problem, he said. Even with government subsidies it will take decades before those energy sources become reliable. Holbrook admitted that his company is heavily invested in gas, drilling into the Herkimer sandstone beneath Madison and Chenango counties. “But we’re not drilling for Marcellus,” he said. “And we’re not fracking.”  

One of the overarching issues throughout the conference was the impact of drilling on land use. Cornell engineering professor Tony Ingraffea noted that while NY has a long history of drilling, the industrialized nature of unconventional drilling is significant. “The first 1,000 high-volume hydro-fracked wells will consume more water than all the previous wells drilled in the state,” he said.

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