Drilling for shale gas can be done safely, and at least one prominent study about the risks is not credible, said Steven Chu, until recently the U.S. secretary of energy, speaking in Columbus on Tuesday.
The availability of natural gas from shale, including from Ohio, likely will lead to decades of low gas prices, Chu said. He also thinks the energy can be extracted in an environmentally responsible way.
“You can have your cake and eat it, too,” he said.
That is the kind of comment that has made some environmental activists accuse Chu and the Obama administration of glossing over concerns about hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a process used to extract oil and gas from shale.
Chu was the keynote speaker at a conference put on by America’s Natural Gas Alliance, a trade group. He is now teaching at Stanford University, after leading the Department of Energy from 2009 until earlier this year.
He gave critics more fodder later in his speech, when he dismissed a 2011 study that raised concerns about methane leakage from gas production.
“There was a very famous Cornell report which we looked at and decided it was not as credible as it — well, we didn’t think it was credible. I’ll just put it that way,” he said.
The study has often been cited by environmentalists to make the case that the gas industry is bad for the air. It was in the news again this week because University of Texas researchers issued a study that contradicts many of the prior report’s claims.
Anthony Ingraffea, the Cornell University professor who is a co-author of the 2011 study, said he is not aware of any previous example of Chu criticizing the work.
“It’s surprising he would use such dismissive language,” Ingraffea said, reached at his office to respond to Chu’s comments. “He’s intimating that there’s something sinister with our paper. But there is nothing sinister. It’s just that the paper said a thing a lot of people didn’t want to hear.”
Environmental groups have campaigned for stricter controls on fracking. But Chu said it is a “ false choice” to say that the country must decide between inexpensive natural gas and preserving the environment.
“This is something you can do in a safe way,” he said.
Later, in a session with reporters, he said that most of the environmental problems with fracking are because of errors that can be fixed. He drew a parallel with building-safety rules.
“When you built buildings in the past, skyscrapers or bridges, (with) industrial accidents and construction deaths, we were saying, ‘That’s part of the business,'" he said. “Nowadays, it’s not part of the business. Every construction company, every time you build a building ... you’re aiming for no accidents and certainly no deaths.”
Because of a plentiful supply of natural gas, he expects the price to stay in the $4 to $6 per million BTU range for several decades. That would be slightly higher than the current level, but well below the $10-plus prices that popped up as recently as 2008.
While he is somewhat confident in predicting the price of natural gas, he will not do so for oil, which has remained volatile. “If I had to guess, (the price of oil) is more likely to go up than go down.”
Low natural-gas prices have led electricity utilities to build more gas-fired power plants.
American Electric Power, a company closely associated with coal power, doubled its use of natural gas from 2009 to 2012, said Mark McCullough, the company’s executive vice president for generation.
“We’re on a push to become a better-balanced portfolio,” he said, also at the conference.
AEP generates 60 percent of its power from coal and about 23 percent from gas. Coal’s share likely will drop below 50 percent in the next few years as the company shuts down several old coal plants.
By Dan Gearino - The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio (MCT)
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