At one level, the expanded focus on natural gas ought to be a no-brainer. We have massive amounts of a fuel that is more efficient and less environmentally damaging than oil or coal, enough to handle our own needs and to make us one of the largest net energy exporters, good for our economy and our foreign policy. The discovery of massive additional amounts of natural gas have reduced prices to a fraction of equivalent amounts of oil.
But it is also true that the process of extracting the gas from shale — a method called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves the use of sand, water and chemicals at high pressure injected underground — could have serious environmental and health concerns.
The word alone sounds awful. We clearly need to explore further how to balance environmental safety while exploiting this resource. But as with so many other issues, the lines have been drawn between environmentalists and drill- baby-drill proponents, and at hearings that Congress has held on fracking (all of three this Congress), lawmakers have basically talked past each other.
The Keystone XL pipeline aside, there is plenty of action out there in the country. Some Western states, especially, have moved ahead rapidly to expand drilling, while in the East, where the Marcellus Shale has massive quantities of gas to tap, there has been more extensive discussion about dealing with dangers to the underground aquifers and from methane gas released as part of the process.
Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has unveiled a policy to limit the drilling to economically struggling parts of the state that border Pennsylvania while leaving it up to each community to decide whether it wants to go forward. That position has left neither energy developers nor environmentalists happy.
And while making sure local communities feel comfortable taking on health risks in return for development and jobs is commendable, having these decisions made at the local level does not substitute for a national energy strategy — or for an accelerated approach to expanding R&D to make the extraction process less messy and dangerous to health and safety.
There is no easy way to make the necessary trade-offs palatable to all sides. Even in the best of times, when Congress was more functional, we had little serious effort to establish a broader energy strategy. So our dysfunction alone does not explain the failure here. It just adds to my frustration that, at a time when we have opportunities to expand jobs — including renewable energy jobs — and at the same time help to reduce carbon while expanding our energy capacity, we are floundering.
Norman Ornstein is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.