Shale Gas Isn't Actually Evil

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"It isn't that the gas producers need our sympathy; it's that we're in need of their product."

The New Republic, Michael Levi

A series of articles in The New York Times has depicted a shale gas industry eager to bend both the truth and the law. In pop culture, too, the shale industry is increasingly synonymous with insidious motives: On an episode last November of the CBS crime show "CSI," detectives were to investigate the suspicious deaths of a group of shale gas whistleblowers. It's no wonder that the industry has come under public fire, with communities in Pennsylvania and New York now resisting development of their gas deposits.

Many of the attacks have been unfairóbut their impact is real. The burden now falls on the shale industry to restore the public's confidence.

It isn't that the gas producers need our sympathy; it's that we're in need of their product. President Obama has called the resource "terrific." Economic experts have hailed the advent of a cheap domestic fuel source.

Shale skeptics have since tried to dim the resource's glow, and, while some of their criticisms ring true, many of their most explosive arguments don't hold up. While shale is slightly worse for the climate than other domestic sources of natural gas, both are far superior to coal.

Some of the arguments about local environmental impacts of shale gas development are, however, on stronger ground. Natural gas production entails real risks, not least to drinking water supplies.

The industry will be quick to point out that gas in water is not hazardous, and that gas has been found in water supplies well before shale development started, but, once you find yourself explaining away flaming tap water, you've already lost.

What policymakers do know is that if irresponsible drillers cut corners, the health risk is intolerable. Alas, the shale gas industry is so diverse that there will inevitably be bad apples.

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