Marcellus shale gas drilling site in West Virginia. Image from Jeanne Briskin's (EPA) presentation at EESI’s briefing on June 21, 2011.With environmental pressures mounting against coal-fired power plants, many are looking to natural gas to fill the gap. Compared to coal plants, natural gas plants use less water, produce no ash waste, emit fewer greenhouse gases, and are more adjustable – making them more suitable complements to variable renewable energy resources like solar and wind. However, the full environmental impacts of natural gas power depend on the source of the natural gas: conventional deposits accompanying oil reservoirs or deposits in shale formations. Shale gas is extracted using hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) technology – in which a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is injected underground at high pressure, fracturing the shale and releasing natural gas.

In June, EESI partnered with the Heinrich Boell Foundation to convene a Congressional briefing on the costs and benefits of developing shale gas . The United States has substantial shale gas resources – particularly in Pennsylvania, New York, and Texas – and they represent opportunities for domestic energy production. However, fracking has come under greater scrutiny for its high levels of water use and impacts on drinking water quality. John Quigley, former Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, explained that the environmental impacts of shale gas development in Pennsylvania will dwarf the cumulative impacts from the state’s oil, timber, and coal extraction industries. In fact, two months prior to the briefing, an explosion at a Marcellus shale well released thousands of gallons of chemical-laced drilling fluid into nearby waterways.

Also at the briefing, Jeanne Briskin, leader of the Environmental Protection Agency’s research task force on fracking, provided an update on the EPA’s multi-year study on the impact of fracking on drinking water resources. Wibke Brems, a state legislator from Germany, explained that Germany and other European countries are closely watching the U.S. experience to help guide their shale gas policies. (Germany faces added pressure to develop more power sources, due to the phase-out of its 17 nuclear reactors in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster.)

“As the shale gas debate heats up, sharing information across different communities is essential for making good legislative decisions,” says EESI policy associate Matthew Johnson. “We strive for solutions that advance economic development while also protecting the environment and health of communities located near shale gas resources.”

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