President Obama used his last State of the Union speech before the November election to highlight the more than half a million jobs that can be created by investing in natural gas production in the United States.
"We have a supply of natural gas that can last America nearly 100 years, and my administration will take every possible action to safely develop this energy," Obama said. "Experts believe this will support more than 600,000 jobs by the end of the decade."
That figure includes both direct and indirect jobs that would be created by extracting more natural gas via hydraulic fracturing, a.k.a. "fracking", a process by which chemicals, water and sand are used to drill through shale rock to release trapped gas.
"Right now, American oil production is the highest that it's been in eight years," Obama said. "Not only that - last year, we relied less on foreign oil than in any of the past 16 years."
Due to the increased fracking in the U.S., the price of natural gas has dropped considerably, resulting in more industrial companies choosing to keep business here at home. Dow Chemical is one example and will spend roughly $4 billion to build new industrial plants by 2017. Investments like this could hit $16 billion and create 17,000 direct jobs and 400,000 indirect jobs, finds the American Chemistry Council.
There is no question the country could use a boost to job creation; even after Friday's stronger-than-expected jobs report, the unemployment rate is 8.3% and 13 million Americans are out of work. But there are serious safety concerns that have erupted in areas where drilling is prevalent, such as the Marcellus Shale which runs from Pennsylvania to upstate New York. Critics say natural gas drilling contaminates nearby water supplies and are calling for federal regulation under the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts. (See: What the "Frack?" Natural Gas Is Key to America's Energy Independence, but Is It Safe?)
Daniel Yergin, author of the New York Times bestseller The Quest, has studied the fracking process extensively with his team at IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates and concluded that the method is safe, "if it is done right."
"The likelihood of chemicals, the little amount of chemicals that are used in fracking actually getting into the water supply is very unlikely because the depth [of the drilling] is so great," says Yergin who advised President Obama on shale gas while serving on a Department of Energy advisory board last year. "The environmental issues are: how do you manage the waste water that is produced with drilling and what do you do about maintaining air quality because you have a lot of diesel engines pumping away."
There is also the community impact with additional truck traffic and other heavy equipment that can damage infrastructure and clogs local roadways.
Yergin acknowledges the seriousness of these concerns, but says they are all very manageable. The report he and the panel submitted to Obama outlined roughly 20 "pragmatic solutions" on how to minimize the aforementioned risks, involving "new technologies, best practices, regulation on water," air quality controls and community development plans to address increased traffic issues. The Secretary of Energy Advisory Board report on shale gas can be found here.
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