August 13, 2013
Opinions, Pennsylvania

Guest Voice: Erie should focus on clean energy

By MATT WALKER, Contributing writer | August 12, 2013 |

In its July 18 editorial, the Erie Times-News correctly pointed out that voters across the political spectrum are telling government leaders to focus on jobs and the economy (“Can Erie’s economy gain from fracking?”). There is no doubt that fracking near Erie has created some new jobs in the region.

The questions are: What kind of jobs, and will the industry benefit the region over the long term? Fracking and all of shale gas equipment and facilities that come along with it release a significant amount of harmful pollution into the air, water and land and can have serious health impacts on residents who live nearby.

Economic development based on renewable energy resources such as wind, on the other hand, are readily available in Erie and can create a substantial amount of long-term jobs while preserving air quality and protecting public health.

Although Erie has historically drilled for oil and natural gas, the wells of our past are not the wells that are being drilled today. Fracking is a very different process that uses a long list of proprietary chemicals combined with horizontal drilling technology and explosives to access the gas stored inside shale formations.

Shale gas is touted as a cleaner-burning fossil fuel than coal, but every stage of natural gas extraction, production and delivery causes local and regional air pollution. After drilling a well, gas is usually burned off at the well pad, emitting high amounts of smog-forming and cancer-causing pollutants.

Hundreds of tons of air toxins are emitted each year by massive engines at facilities called compressor stations, used to transport gas through pipelines. Some of these pollutants are known carcinogens and have been linked to devastating neurological and developmental issues, brain damage, liver and kidney damage.

A similar mix of pollutants is emitted by diesel engines used to drill, frack and move massive amounts of materials. Exposure to diesel exhaust can cause headaches and nausea, respiratory disease and lung cancer. Smog has been linked with a variety of respiratory diseases and is associated with cancer, stroke and premature death.

Shale gas is also touted by the industry and elected officials as a solution to climate change. The overall climate change footprint of shale gas is potentially twice as great as coal over a 20-year time frame. Methane (or natural gas) is 105 times more potent at warming our planet than carbon dioxide. The gas industry leaks anywhere from 3½ to 9 percent of the gas it produces.

Efforts by the industry to use better technologies to reduce methane leakage and pollution are laudable, but ultimately only act as a Band-Aid on the pollution problem rather than tackling the root.

Residents in northwestern Pennsylvania are already seeing negative impacts of climate change: increased days with unhealthy levels of smog, warmer temperatures contributing to toxic algae blooms, and year after year of impacts on thriving agricultural land.

While the health and climate impacts of fracking may seem daunting, the good news is that Erie has great potential to be the next hub for job creation in the region if it prioritizes developing its abundant wind resources. Every day, more research shows that renewable energy is technically and economically feasible.

Wind energy is not some future vision yet to be actualized – it is being rapidly developed right now. Renewable energy, including wind, provided 50 percent of all new energy-generating capacity in the United States in 2012 and currently represents 15.66 percent of the total installed generating capacity. The main reason for not moving forward on renewable energy is the lack of political will.

An economic impact study on an offshore wind project in Cleveland suggests that 8,000 jobs and almost $8 billion in wages could be generated by a series of offshore wind projects in the region. From an economic point of view alone, it makes the most sense for Erie to focus on the development of clean and renewable forms of energy.

Energy production has been a thriving industry in the region since Drake struck the first oil well. It is time to move beyond the extraction and burning of fossil fuels and invest in renewable energy production that is good for jobs and good for our lungs.

MATT WALKER is the community outreach director for the Clean Air Council, based in Philadelphia. He has a master’s degree in environmental planning.

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