The growing concern and focus on byproducts of the energy industry has sparked a global race for the production of alternative, more sustainable, types of energy. The emergence of renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar power, has gained substantial momentum, but are far from total implementation. Their technologies are still being developed. Natural gas is an alternative to petroleum and renewable energy sources has become a major player in the shift to more sustainable energy sources. It is used to “heat and cool homes, to generate electricity, and to provide fuel for residential cooking stoves.”[i] Natural gas, although non-renewable, has many benefits as a new energy resource. Consumption of natural gas is far “less polluting than other fossil fuels like coal and oil, natural gas is deemed relatively environmentally friendly.”[ii] Like other finite fossil fuel sources, natural gas is extracted from deposits below the earth’s outer layer. In attempt to balance what seems like countless benefits to the production of natural gas, those opposing the production of natural gas rally behind one main cost: fracking.
Natural gas deposits are located world-wide, with an estimated 57% found in Russia, Iran and Qatar.[iii] The United States also has a large reserve of natural gas. Although the majority of natural gas lies in the eastern hemisphere, not all shale gas is deemed recoverable. Exhibit 3 shows the estimated recoverable amounts of shale gas globally. The United States is estimated to have 4000 trillion cubic feet of recoverable shale gas, or roughly 25% of the world’s total estimate. Extraction of natural gas in the United States contributes to 20% of the world’s production.[iv] This demonstrates the urgency by the United States to move into natural gas for various reasons. Production is progressive in the global energy race, contributes to United States GDP, and also serves as a means to reduce the United States’ dependence on foreign energy supplies. The benefits of shifting to natural gas as an energy resource are countless. Estimates claims that “the United states could reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from the electricity sector by at least 10% by shutting down the least efficient coal-fired plants and ramping up existing gas-powered generators that are running below capacity”.[v]
The Marcellus Shale is a natural gas reservoir that has fallen into the spotlight of the fracking debate. It stretches across 140,000 square kilometers in Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and West Virginia. It is estimated that the reserves of the shale, located on average 2 kilometers below the earth’s crust, hold 2700 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.[vi] (Exhibit 3) This staggering amount of fuel is over half of the United States’ reserves, making it a major target for energy companies.
The argument against the Marcellus Shale lies in the method of extraction. The benefits of natural gas are contrasted by the controversial means of fracking which have been linked to leaks and chemical spills into local environments. “Hydraulic fracturing” also known as “fracking” is a process of removing shale gas. Fracking is a procedure in which “a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals is injected into natural gas well under high pressure.” [vii] Challenges of extraction that lend to the argument against drilling include “accurately prospecting the richest reserves, rapidly accessing the deep reservoir by drilling and in effectively stimulating the low porosity and low permeability formation.”[viii] Other environmental considerations are found in the byproducts of extraction. These include “surface land disturbance and water withdrawals….The largest environmental concern, however, is the disposal of hydraulic fracturing fluids which typically contains high concentration of dissolved solids from the formation….These are either re-injected, treated for reuse as drilling fluids or brought to drinking water standards. ”[ix] Methane, a carbon gas which is detrimental to the ozone layer, is a main byproduct of fracking. Studies show that the gas is in fact elevated in the areas of extraction, however it and other gases were not in concentrations high enough “that would trigger air-related health issues associated with Marcellus Shale drilling activities.”[x]
Another key argument to the Marcellus Shale debate lies in its timeline. Those opposed to the drilling feel that companies are rushing to exploit the natural resource before the health implications are fully researched. “Although shale gas offers many benefits as a fuel and a source of jobs and revenue, the process of extracting it from the grounds has drawbacks for surrounding communities.”[xi] These implications include spills, leaks, and water and air qualities. There is a lag between research of these implications and the actually harvesting of natural gas through fracking.
Over the past decade, several “key players”, have emerged in both the debate and regulation surrounding hydrofracking in the Marcellus Shale. Range Resources and Chesapeake Energy are the two largest energy companies involved in the Marcellus Shale natural gas production process.[xii] Both Range and Chesapeake are publicly held companies that trade on the NYSE. This characteristic lends to a more transparent debate because they are required by law to release earnings and production results on a quarterly basis. On April 12, 2012, Range Resources announced its 1Q12 production results. Range resources first quarter production comprised of 78% natural gas, 16% natural gas liquid (NGLs), and the remaining 6% from oil. “Year-over-year…NGL production rose 20%, while natural gas production increased 19%”. [xiii]
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is seen as a moderator between the drilling companies and those who oppose the natural gas production. The Pittsburgh Post Gazette writes, “During the last five years of Gov. Ed Rendell’s administration, it (PADEP) tried to stake out middle ground between ensuring tough, new regulation of the industry while allowing it to continue to operate.”[xiv] As a state regulator, the PADEP must consider the benefits of natural gas production and the costs to the state and its citizens. The PADEP may be seen as either progressive or aggressive in comparison to New York, who enacted a moratorium on shale drilling for a minimum of two years. Allowing drilling while working to enact regulations demonstrates Pennsylvania’s awareness of potentially harmful drilling effects, contrasted with numerous benefits of natural gas production. Pennsylvania may have been more inclined to lead because significantly higher natural gas reserves exist in Pennsylvania in comparison to New York.[xv] (Exhibit 1)
Natural gas drilling through the method of fracking continues to this day in Pennsylvania. New York is working towards removal of the moratorium on drilling. The general movement is towards making production of Marcellus shale natural gas feasible. We have covered several ethical perspectives throughout the semester including consequential, deontological, and virtue ethic viewpoints. I will attempt to classify the decisions by energy companies to drill the Marcellus shale into one of the three previously mentioned ethical perspectives.
First, I will eliminate the virtue ethics perspective. Virtue ethics considers the actions by the actor ethical based on the “intentions” of the actor. So long as the actor intends to be ethical in his decisions, regardless of the outcome, he has acted ethically. What are the intentions of the drillers? Examine Range Resources and Chesapeake Energy for the argument. Both are publically traded companies with annual revenues exceeding billions of dollars annually. Are these companies drilling because they seek to make markets more competitive, jobs more available, and air more cleanly? Or do they drill because they seek to maximize profit, stay progressive in the energy shift towards clean energy, and be first movers in a new industry? I tend to think the intentions of the energy companies leans more towards direction of shareholder maximization, and possibly reduction of foreign oil dependence.
Is there a common universal good in the fracking of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale? If so, the argument for the deontological perspective has value. Natural gas, relative to oil, burns more cleanly and therefore its’ consumption has less detrimental effects on the environment than oil. A shift from oil to natural gas is progressive in the move for clean energy. A downfall of natural gas is that it too is a finite resource. The combination of progressive and finite makes natural gas a “bridge” between the old energy (oil) and the future of sustainable renewable energy. Again, this bridge can be seen in Exhibit 2, as coal is eventually replaced in coming decades. Natural gas will buy time for the evolution of renewable energy while allowing for a shift away from sources that are detrimental to the environment. Utilizing the Marcellus shale resource through fracking allows for cheaper production, therefore generating higher quantities and more competitive prices. Domestic production and consumption have an inverse relationship with foreign energy dependence. As they increase, the United States can become less dependent on foreign oil supplies. This is a major benefit to the United States as a society. There is one major flaw in applying the deontological argument as a social perspective. The argument claims that: “outcome doesn’t matter” and that “doing what is right” does. If fracking does have potentially negative effects on the environment, it would not be the “right thing” to continue with that means, simply to produce more natural gas for the previously listed benefits.
The consequentialist perspective may be the most applicable sociological perspective. The consequentialist perspective can be closely related to utilitarianism, where the overall goal is to maximize utility. Maximizing social welfare creates the greatest good for society. Social welfare in the fracking debate is composed of several pieces. If there are minimal effects of production (less than producing oil and coal), and the benefits to society are greater than not producing natural gas, maximum utility has increased. There are many specific contributions to increased social utility. Acting as a bridge from oil and coal to more renewable sources gives time for renewable sources to develop while allowing for the environment to experience reduced impacts of energy consumption. It also allows for competition within the renewable sector to develop organically, rather than through overdependence on government subsidies and tax breaks. Society would experience utility increase as the money currently funding development programs in renewable energy would move to other government programs or a decrease in the national deficit (another stride in foreign independence as much of the current debt is owed to other nations). Fracking allows for both cheaper production and greater production amounts, allowing for more competitive markets. This is a benefit to consumers. The game is not “zero-sum” however. Companies will be producing greater volumes of natural gas allowing for higher revenues and increased job opportunities. Finally, the utilization of land covering the Marcellus shale generates value to otherwise worthless land. The region, in which the Marcellus Shale lies, can be considered somewhat desolate and poor. Added value would be a means of infusing corporate revenues into the region’s citizens. Adding intrinsic value to United States land, a fixed resource, makes the US more valuable and will result in more money fused into the US Economy.
In the consequentialist perspective, the sum of all benefits from a decision must justify the means of achieving such benefits. In other words, the means must justify the ends. I believe that the countless benefits of fracking overwhelmingly outweigh the potential consequences. The information opposing fracking seems to be, in most cases, hypothetical. It also seems to be aiding in the progression of fracking to be less detremental, by proposing possible issues which government and companies work to avoid. Increased research and regulation do have a place in the fight for fracking. They should both continue to evolve and affect the methods of natural gas removal. Regulation should focus on aiding the process and cleaning up the way it is produced, rather than impede production. Not utilizing the Marcellus Shale resource would be a costly mistake for the United States. If production benefits remain the same, and means of production become less detrimental or are proved to be safe, then maximum utility increases for society. Thus, I believe that the consequentialist viewpoint, where ends justify means and social utility is maximized, is most suitable in evaluating the method of fracking on the Marcellus shale.
[i] (Robbins, 2007)
[ii] (Robbins, 2007)
[iii] (Robbins, 2007)
[iv] (Robbins, 2007)
[v] (Tollefson, 2010)
[vi] (Lee , Herman, Elsworth, Kim, & Lee, 2011)
[vii] (Manuel, 2010)
[viii] (Lee , Herman, Elsworth, Kim, & Lee, 2011)
[ix] (Lee , Herman, Elsworth, Kim, & Lee, 2011)
[x] (PA DEP, 2011)
[xi] (Schmidt, 2011)
[xii] (Hamill, 2011)
[xiii] (Wire, 2012)
[xiv] (Hamill, 2011)
[xv] (Hamill, 2011)
Hamill, S. D. (2011, February 27). Ten Top Players in the Marcellus Shale Play. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Lee , D., Herman, J. D., Elsworth, D., Kim, H., & Lee, H. (2011, February). A Critical Evaluation of Unconventional Gas Recovery from the Marcellus Shale, Northeastern United States. KSCE Journal of Civil Engineering, 15(4), 679-687.
Manuel, J. (2010, May). Mining: EPA Tackles Fracking. Environmental Health Perspectives, 118(5), A199.
Michael, B. (2011). Agriculture and Natural Gas. Post Carbon Institute.
PA DEP, B. o. (2011). Northeastern Pennsylvania Marcellus Shale Short-Term Ambient Air Sampling Report. Harrisburg, PA: Commonwelath of PA Department of Environmental Protection.
Robbins, P. (2007). Natural Gas. Encyclopedia of Environment and Society, 3, 1215-1217. Los Angeles: Sage Publications.
Robert McIlvaine, A. J. (2010, July). The Potentail of Gas Shale. World Pumps, 2010(7), 16-18.
Schmidt, C. W. (2011, August). Blind Rush?: Shale Gas Boom Proceeds amid Human Health Questions. Environmental Health Perspectives, 119(8), A348-A353.
Tollefson, J. (2010, July 1). Gas to Displace coal on road to clean energy. Nature, 19.
Wire, B. (2012, April 12). Range Announces First Quarter Production Results. Business Wire.
Exhibit 1 (A Critical Evaluation of Unconventional Gas Recovery from the Marcellus Shale, Northeastern United States)
Exhibit 2 (Gas to Displace coal on road to clean energy)
Exhibit 3 (The Potential of Gas Shale)
Exhibit 4 (EPA Tackles Fracking)