Since returning to private life, John Hanger, the former secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, has kept busy trying to douse fears that his state's natural gas boom is contaminating drinking water.
Hanger's two-year tenure saw the Marcellus Shale, an underground rock formation that runs beneath much of the Northeast, change from a geological oddity into the center of a American drilling renaissance. Under his watch, Pennsylvania scrambled to respond to claims that water supplies are being tainted by the practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in which a blend of water, sand and chemicals is injected underground to break the shale and release the gas inside.
Hanger, a Democrat who previously led the Pennsylvania-based environmental group PennFuture, left office convinced that the high-profile fracas over fracking is misguided.
Air pollution is more of an Achilles' heel for drilling in the Northeast, he said last week, pointing to spikes in emissions that have followed natural gas development in other parts of the country.
Thousands of natural gas wells are expected to be drilled in Pennsylvania over the next few years, requiring a fleet of construction equipment, diesel engines and compressor stations. Together, they could be a large new source of smog-forming emissions along the Northeast corridor, much of which still struggles with old air quality standards at a time when U.S. EPA is preparing to make the rules stricter.
"If the industry ubiquitously uses the dirtiest choices, it won't fit into the Northeast," Hanger said. "It won't happen. There will be suits from New York, New Jersey, everywhere. From environmental groups. Maybe even from Pennsylvania state officials, trying to stop that.
"That's a real issue," he added. "The chemicals coming back up from fracking is not."
These are not the complaints of a person with an ax to grind against the industry. Hanger, who is now an attorney in Harrisburg, Pa., for a Pittsburgh-based law firm, has been a vocal supporter of natural gas, which burns cleaner than oil or coal and is generally thought to release less of the greenhouse gases that are linked to climate change.
He has not pulled any punches when challenging claims that fracking fluid is seeping into water supplies, which are usually accompanied by calls for strict new regulations on the industry.
In blog posts and interviews since leaving office in January, Hanger has slammed the Academy Award-nominated documentary "Gasland" -- in which he appears prominently -- as a "deliberately false presentation" meant to scare people about water contamination from the natural gas industry. He has described filmmaker Josh Fox, who interviewed Hanger in the film and asked him on camera if he would drink a bottle of water that was allegedly tainted by fracking, as a "propagandist."
And earlier this year, Hanger took to his blog to write a point-by-point takedown of a New York Times article that said radioactive wastewater from fracking could be making Pennsylvania tap water unsafe. He has also criticized a study by Cornell University researchers that says the entire life cycle of natural gas wipes out its advantage over coal when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions.
Natural gas boosters, like Hanger, worry that strict new rules could stop the shale gas boom, and with it, the hope that natural gas could be a "bridge fuel" for a long-term transition away from coal and oil. If the United States is going to use less coal, they say, it will need massive reserves like the Marcellus Shale to keep natural gas prices low and electricity cheap.
Utilities have already started to flock toward natural gas, and EPA's new pollution rules for coal-fired power plants are expected to push them further in that direction. Between 2000 and 2010, coal's share of U.S. power production fell from 52 percent to 45 percent while gas moved from 16 percent to 24 percent, Hanger said last week during a speech at the headquarters of the Edison Electric Institute.
Renewables like wind and solar are becoming more competitive, but they won't replace coal anytime soon, most analysts say. That leaves natural gas and nuclear, the latter of which faces new hurdles after the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan.
"I hopefully have the wisdom, and perhaps the burden, of living in the real world -- of our real choices," Hanger said in an interview after the speech. "I know that if you say 'no' to gas, at least for the next 10 years, you're saying 'yes' to more coal and oil. The math is unforgiving. That would be a disaster for America's environment and the world's environment, were that to happen."
Lessons from the West
Though he has downplayed the risk posed by fracking, Hanger is concerned that the Marcellus drilling boom could be a replay of what has happened about 2,000 miles away, in the rich natural gas fields of the Rocky Mountains.
The Uintah Basin of northeastern Utah and the Green River Valley of southwestern Wyoming are sparsely populated areas with few other sources of man-made pollution. But when thousands of new natural gas wells were drilled over the past decade, the result was some of the thickest smog in the United States.
In Sublette County, Wyo., where 10,000 people live across an area the size of Connecticut, the pristine air of years past has proved stubbornly hard to restore. When officials looked at air quality monitors several years ago, they discovered that emissions from drilling wells had made the air so dirty that it rivaled the worst summer days in Southern California.
That has led some locals to turn on the natural gas industry, despite the money and jobs that it brings. Some of them are resisting plans to drill thousands more natural gas wells on federal land.
"People on the ground here have gone from concerned to being irate," said Stephen Smith, the mayor of Pinedale, Wyo., the county seat. "There's a lot of serious concern here on the ground. I don't have a solution. And I'm not against industry. Industry has done a lot of great things and they've really stepped up to the plate. But it's my job to represent the concerns of the people here, and people are concerned" (Land Letter, April 21).
Sublette County is unusual, said Steven Dietrich, the air quality administrator at the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality. The bowl-shaped valley often has stagnant air and sometimes atmospheric inversions trap the emissions from natural gas development close to the ground. Smog is also formed more easily when there is a thick snowpack, because the sunlight reflects off the snow.
Prodded by state officials, the natural gas industry has cut its emissions by a quarter over the past three years. New rules that will take effect at the end of this year will require all drill rigs to add pollution controls to their engines, Dietrich said.
Getting a handle on the emissions will be tough, especially considering that natural gas companies have proposed drilling thousands more wells. Levels of ground-level ozone, the main ingredient in smog, spiked to 124 parts per billion (ppb) this March -- well above the federal air quality standard of 75 ppb that was set by EPA under President George W. Bush.
"All of your efforts can always be trumped by what the weather does to you," Dietrich said.
As he left office earlier this year, Hanger sent a parting email to colleagues warning that Pennsylvania could not afford to be the next Wyoming. He told Greenwire he hopes that "enlightened self-interest" will lead natural gas drillers to voluntarily use newer, cleaner engines and equipment as they develop the Marcellus Shale.
"What happened in Wyoming, in a few counties, just can't happen in Pennsylvania," Hanger told Greenwire last week. "That can't happen in the Northeast without the industry putting its own future in peril."
Small sources add up
Pennsylvania was just starting to wrestle with the air impacts of natural gas drilling when Hanger left office in January, he said.
Over the past several months, the state's Department of Environmental Protection has released sampling data from three different areas of the state with heavy drilling. None of the monitors detected higher levels of air pollution than federal standards allow, though they could not figure out whether the growing number of wells would lead to violations of the ozone standards.
Pennsylvania officials will review the sampling reports and decide whether a long-term study is needed, said Kevin Sunday, a spokesman for the agency, in a statement.
A single natural gas well has virtually no impact on air quality, said Kathryn Klaber, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a trade group. Any increase in emissions from new drilling in Pennsylvania will be outweighed by the decreases seen as cheap gas entices utilities to switch away from coal, she said.
"If we are using this natural gas that we're producing, the net benefits are without a doubt positive," Klaber said. "On balance, you're going to see a tremendous improvement in the Northeast."
But those small pollution sources add up.
In the Barnett Shale region of Texas, which EPA Region 6 Administrator Al Armendariz studied as a professor at Southern Methodist University, oil and gas production was responsible for 18,615 tons of nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions in 2009 -- about as much as a medium-sized coal-fired power plant without pollution controls.
The report by Armendariz, which was seconded by scientists at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, found that the industry released more smog-forming emissions than all cars and trucks in the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area, which is flunking the federal air quality standards for ozone.
Eventually, the Marcellus Shale could dwarf those numbers. According to some estimates, it contains 500 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas, which would make it the world's second largest gas field. Getting all that fuel out of the ground would take 100,000 wells, researchers at Penn State University say.
The number of Marcellus Shale wells is increasing by the day. There were 3,100 shale gas wells drilled in Pennsylvania over the past five years, according to numbers provided by the Department of Environmental Protection. About 1,400 Marcellus wells were drilled last year, up from 768 in 2009 and 195 the year before that.
State and local regulators in much of the Northeast "are already looking under every rock" to find sources of NOx that they can control, said Bill Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies. The pressure will only build if U.S. EPA tightens the air quality standard for ozone to between 60 ppb and 70 ppb, as the agency proposed last year, he said.
'Throwing a match' in the forest
Though the smog in the West has been largely attributed to unusual geography and weather patterns, places like Pennsylvania could also see ozone spikes if emissions from the natural gas industry are not well controlled, said Paul Miller, the deputy director of Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management.
Along the densely populated and industrialized Northeast corridor, levels of smog-forming emissions are much higher to begin with, in part because of emissions from coal-fired power plants in the Midwest. That means there is less room to add a large new source of emissions without violating air quality standards, said Miller, whose group represents New York, New Jersey and the six states in New England.
The Northeast is also more sensitive to NOx, which react with volatile organic compounds (VOCs) to form ozone. Because trees are a natural source of VOCs, emissions of NOx from diesel engines could be a problem in the heavily forested areas where many of Pennsylvania's natural gas wells are being drilled.
If development of the Marcellus has an effect on regional air quality, it could also lead to lawsuits from other states. The Clean Air Act allows EPA to swing into action if emissions are crossing state lines and making the air dirtier in other states.
"These compressor stations, and the engines that go along with them -- they're in the same transport pathway as the power plants," Miller said. "Now we're throwing in all these new sources. They're going to be spread out all over the place, and they're in pretty heavily forested areas. It's as if you're throwing a match out there."
Some environmentalists want EPA to do an inventory of emissions from the Marcellus Shale, as it did with the Barnett Shale in preparation for new standards that it will propose this summer for larger oil and gas production facilities. The Philadelphia-based advocacy group Clean Air Council asked EPA Region 3 Administrator Shawn Garvin to intervene last week, complaining that drillers are exempt from most of Pennsylvania's air permitting rules.
But while the state has not done an inventory of emissions, it appears to be serious about to figuring out whether drilling is going to take a toll on the air, Miller said.
"It's certainly got their attention," he said.
Is natural gas part of the answer?
The emissions from natural gas drilling are closely linked to the industry's heavy reliance on older diesel engines.
Diesel engines are used to run the construction equipment that clears space for a well and builds the drilling pad. They power the drilling rigs that bore holes down as far as 9,000 feet below the surface. In the hydraulic fracturing process, they pump chemical-filled water deep underground. Large diesel engines can also power compressor stations, where gas is pressurized and pumped through pipelines.
So far in Pennsylvania, where compressor stations need to get air permits from the DEP, the vast majority of them are fueled by natural gas, said Klaber, the head of the Marcellus Shale Coalition.
"Diesel is the exception as opposed to the rule," Klaber said. "Having as many as possible run on natural gas seems to be a priority of our members, and that seems to make sense to me."
The diesel engines used at well sites can be retrofitted, and newer engines trap about 90 percent of the smog-forming emissions. But in parts of the West with air quality problems, some drillers are cutting down on pollution by using natural gas, said Doug Hock, a spokesman for Encana Oil & Gas Inc.
Encana converted all six of its drilling rigs in Sublette County to natural gas. Over time, that will save money as well as reduce emissions, he said -- the gas-burning rigs use about $1,500 in fuel per day, compared with $5,000 for a drill rig using diesel.
"We're always trying to build a market for our product, and this is a way to do it right at the wellhead," Hock said in an interview. "This is kind of a no-brainer."
But new engines are more expensive than older diesel engines. And under the Clean Air Act, the "nonroad" engines that are used for natural gas production are usually classified as mobile sources -- like cars and trucks -- because they are moved from place to place.
Though there are EPA standards for new engines, the existing ones can keep running without any pollution limits. It might take decades for the fleet of construction equipment and stationary engines to be replaced, said Jeremy Nichols, director of the climate and energy program at the advocacy group WildEarth Guardians.
"Nonroads are the dirtiest of the dirty diesel engines right now," said Nichols, whose group often challenges oil and gas drilling projects in the West. "Unless a company takes the initiative, they're allowed to smoke as much as they want."
States are pre-empted from regulating the existing engines, too. They have had to rely on voluntary deals with drillers that do not want to see development slowed down by violations of federal air quality standards, said Dietrich, the Wyoming official.
As air quality standards get stricter, the drilling boom in the Northeast could present an air quality challenge within five or 10 years, Hanger said. Because the wells being drilled now are supposed to produce gas for three or four decades, the industry needs to start investing now in environmental controls, he said.
"They're going to have to pay for it," he said. "Otherwise, the alternative will be worse, I think."