Don't Just Drill, Baby -- Drill Carefully

How to Make Fracking Safer for the Environment

All hat, no hydrocarbons: protesting fracking in Los Angeles, May 2013. Lucy Nicholson / Courtesy Reuters

The energy business has a way of making smart people look dumb. Experts were blindsided by the shale revolution in the United States. For most of the last few decades, they had assumed that U.S. domestic energy supplies were dwindling. Then, advances in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” -- the injection of high-pressure streams of sand, water, and chemicals into underground shale and other rock to unlock oil and natural gas trapped there -- significantly boosted total U.S. natural gas production, by as much as 25 percent in recent years, forcing many experts to change their tune. Horizontal drilling and fracking are now having an even bigger impact on domestic oil production: five years ago, most new onshore rigs were drilling for shale gas, but today, most are drilling for oil in shale and so-called tight rock formations. Experts are confidently pointing to the benefits of abundant supplies of this unconventional oil and gas for the U.S. economy: lower energy costs, new jobs, and even a revival in some parts of the manufacturing sector. Politicians from both parties, meanwhile, are vying to be the most enthusiastic boosters of domestic natural gas.

Yet these same experts and policymakers are in danger of being blindsided again, by failing to grasp the extent of the growing concern among Americans over the environmental costs of unconventional oil and gas production -- a crisis of confidence that threatens to halt the boom in some states. From Pennsylvania to North Dakota, more and more people are expressing concern about the environmental problems associated with this production, including local air pollution from drilling sites known as “well pads,” the contamination of drinking water from spills or leaky wells, and noise and dust from trucks serving drilling sites.

Some U.S. communities and states, and even entire foreign countries, have responded to these worries by choosing to press pause on the development of their unconventional oil and gas resources. New York State, which sits atop

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