The Wave of the Future

Drill, baby, drill. I’m sure I wrote that in a column sometime in past few years. But don’t grab your wet suits, kayaks, inner tubes, snorkeling and scuba gear, fishing boats, and weapons and rush to the beaches to fend off the oil rigs about to sprout along our beaches.

The drilling I’m talking about is taking place in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Colorado, Texas, North Dakota and other places where Marcellus and Utica shale formations are abundant and where the newest techniques of fracking are bringing the United States to the brink of energy self-sufficiency. Better than that, it could make us the world’s leader in exporting fossil fuels. And that includes coal which has all but been banned here. Yeah, though fossil fuels is a dirty word in environmental and democratic political circles, the world is going to need fossil fuels for years to come.

It’s not just a matter of jobs, but a matter of getting enough cheap energy to distribute widely enough to allow the poorest of peoples to acquire basic power for electricity and water. Nothing wrong with pushing wind (great killer of birds) and solar power, but it’s plain old fuel that is needed.

Though the process has been known and used for several decades, innovations in the past ten years have made it cost efficient and effective. It’s not a casual operation. Drillers go down at least a mile and then drill out horizontally for thousands of feet as needed. Water and other chemicals are forced into the holes and the result is a fracturing of the rock structure releasing oil and gas. The result is that the U.S. is expected to be the world’s largest producer of both commodities and a total reversal of a not-so-long-ago prediction that we would run out of natural resources. There are also chemical by-products that are promising to produce more jobs.

This reversal took place relatively quietly and independently of government. It has largely been a deal between drillers and private land owners with cooperation and oversight from local and state governments. Many landowners, mostly farmers, have profited immensely. So have the local and state governments. It has been pointed out that the principle of private land ownership is what allowed the quick development of fracking operations and that other countries without such basic ownership principals won’t be able to catch up.

My home county of Washington just south of Pittsburgh has been home for about 500 wells. It and the surrounding counties also produce coal most of which is being exported. It’s been a boon to the economy there with a minimum of disruption. Drillers have an incentive (besides fines by the DEP and EPA) to be careful. Each well costs millions to drill and screw-ups mean less production and sometimes failure.

However, it is not without controversy and some mishaps and not without opposition. Some environmentalists oppose all drilling. More want severe limits on it. New York, for instance, prohibits it. The biggest roadblocks to further development are the need for additional pipelines for the gas and oil as well as refineries, fracking plants, and port facilities for export. These, including the Keystone pipeline which the Obama administration and the democratic party oppose, can tie the entire North American continent (U.S., Canada, Mexico) together into a safe and peaceful mega power of energy. It can be done and be environmentally safe.

Trucks and some cars are already running on natural gas and gas is replacing coal as the preferred and cheaper fuel for power plants. This is the wave of the future and can’t and shouldn’t be stopped anymore than the exploration  and development in the past which fueled a world economy driven by cars and airplanes. Cars and motorized vehicles brought death and injury on the highways, spread pollution and crime and require great ribbons of concrete and asphalt tearing up our landscape. Airplanes brought the world together spreading more pollution, more pestilence and extreme violence in war and now drones to spy and kill.

Somehow, with technology and vision, we can deal with these. We’re not likely to ban cars and planes unless you want to be relegated to walking and bicycles.

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