Chu: Shale gas can free nation

Matthew Santoni
| Friday, Feb. 10, 2012

The Secretary of Energy believes that tapping the natural gas resources of the Marcellus shale can help steer the country toward energy independence, and ongoing government research could help tap it safely, he said on Thursday during a visit to the Pittsburgh region.

"(Natural gas production) can create wealth, but it also has the potential for doing bad things to the environment," said Secretary Steven Chu, who toured the National Energy Technology Laboratory in South Park, met with gas industry executives and visited the City-County Building, Downtown, to tout a federally funded effort to improve the laboratory's energy efficiency.

"Right now, the Department of Energy is focused ... on how to decrease greatly any chances of environmental risks."

In the South Park lab, researchers demonstrated experiments, such as using tiny amounts of naturally occuring radioactive isotopes that could help track groundwater contamination back to acid mine drainage, natural occurrences or spills from gas drilling sites. Another experiment found that hydraulic fracturing fluids leaking through tiny cracks in the concrete used in well casings would not consistently widen those cracks, and may even narrow or seal them over time.

Chu said the Department of Energy's experiments between 1978 and 1992 helped develop the widespread practice of horizontal drilling and fracturing that made capturing natural gas from rock formations such as shale cost-effective enough that private industry could take over. He said ongoing experiments in labs such as the one in South Park would hopefully be adapted by drillers to make natural gas production safer and a more efficient "bridge" from the use of other fossil fuels to wind or solar power to generate electricity.

Environmental groups say they would rather see a pause in shale gas production so technology and regulations can catch up.

"We are fully in favor of any kind of research -- industry, government or academic -- that has to do with making this safer," said Erika Staaf, clean water advocate with the PennEnvironment Research and Policy Center. "We would prefer that innovation be happening without drilling in the future, while the technology, the regulations and the enforcement staff are beefed up."

Chu was onhand when Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl announced the start of an eight-month, $3.4 million project to upgrade energy efficiency in the City-County Building. Upgrades to a steam heating system will make it more efficient, and new lighting and light timers will be installed on the first and second floors.

The project, which begins Feb. 27, will follow "Buy American" provisions of a federal grant program that funded it. Electrical contractor Craig Lockwood of Bethel Park-based LaFace & McGovern Associates said the lighting fixtures will be assembled in California, Minnesota and Illinois.

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