Host's Diary
10:37 am
Wed December 18, 2013

A Long Fracking Conversation With Dan Esty

Dan Esty, Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, during a visit to WNPR.
Credit Chion Wolf / WNPR

Okay, so it's not Frost/Nixon. But over the last few years, I've been having an ongoing, at times entertaining, occasionally frustrating, and always interesting conversation on air and on stage with Dan Esty about "fracking" and natural gas. 

The Commissioner of Connecticut's Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has a basic premise: natural gas is a lot cleaner to burn than coal and oil, and we've got a lot more of it now at a relatively low price because of the heavy extraction in nearby states. He calls gas a ten- to 20-year "bridge" to a cleaner energy future that relies more heavily on renewables like wind and solar. It's the key to a "comprehensive energy strategy" that the Malloy administration has presented to regulators

At The Connecticut Forum in May 2012, Esty said, "We suddenly have a picture of natural gas as an opportunity in the United States, like we we hadn't imagined three or four years ago." That panel discussion, called Our Fragile Earth, also featured environmental justice advocate Majora Carter and sustainable food activist Michael Pollan. As you can see in the clip below, Esty's fellow panelists weren't buying his assertion that "fracking can be done in an environmentally sound way" to "reduce air pollution by 80 percent."

"I think this is a terrible idea," Pollan said of the nation's natural gas policy. "I think it's an environmental justice issue." Pollan told the crowd that wealthier states, like Connecticut and New York, would be able to get cheap gas on the backs of poorer states that would bear the environmental impacts of production. 

"The governor often says he's very disappointed we don't have any 'frackable' areas."
Dan Esty

It's a bit more complicated than that. 

New York imposed a moratorium on fracking while it explores the environmental risks. But that hasn't stopped the state from heavily investing in distribution and incentives for gas conversion, even converting power plants over from coal.

More simply, as this NPR story by Jeff Brady puts it, New York is "benefiting from a fracking-fueled drilling boom in next-door Pennsylvania."

It's not unlike Connecticut. We're rapidly converting homes from oil heat to gas by not only expanding service, but by providing big incentives to homeowners, while upsetting those who sell fuel oil in the state. Meanwhile, anti-fracking activists in Connecticut are trying to make sure the waste product -- chemically tainted water -- can't be stored in Connecticut. 

The only difference is New York actually has "frackable" land -- the northeast extension of the Marcellus Shale formation -- which they're choosing to go slow in developing. 

That's in contrast to my home state of Pennsylvania, where a fracking boom has pushed gas exploration into just about every corner of the Commonwealth, including my hometown. Many welcome the industry in a state hit hard by recession. But it's not clear that natural gas is really creating the number of jobs in Pennsylvania that the industry touts.

What is clear is that the rush to "Frack PA" has environmentalists worried, and even Esty is quick to say that the state is no model to follow. 

Witness the 2010 HBO documentary "Gasland," a devastating look at the impact of fracking, from water you can light with a match, to chronic illness to dead livestock:

(There's even a Part Two now. How fun!)

Which brings us to my conversation with Esty earlier this month at the Mark Twain House and Museum, sponsored by the World Affairs Council of Connecticut. After going over the issue with him for about the fourth time, we went to audience questions, and a gentleman in the second row brought up "Gasland."

Esty told him he thought some of the stories were overblown. So I asked what he did know to be true about this method of extracting gas by pumping water mixed with chemicals deep into the ground. Here's what he told me:

"There remains a great deal of confusion on this front. And a significant number of people that are pushing forward an agenda that centers on a small number of documented cases of real problems. Not zero, but a small number of cases. And I think there are cases where drilling has been done in a poor way, where - particularly - the seal, as you're going through water, is not done right. And, where there has been chemical contamination.

There is a small number of cases where you've had groundwater contamination more broadly, I think there have been some earthquake issues. So, I think there are real issues, but the scale is not large and on balance, I think it remains the case that if done well - and we can do better, I've said this - we need better regulations, we need John's home state (Pennsylvania) in particular to step up and really improve its regulatory framework.

I think you can minimize, not eliminate, but minimize some of these problems and that the benefits of cutting in half your pollution, your greenhouse gas emissions, by moving from coal to natural gas is dramatic in terms of what this country can do in a practical basis over the next ten to twenty years."

So, I asked, "If the Marcellus Shale extended from Pennsylvania and New York into Western Connecticut, would we be fracking here?"

Esty responded, "In fact, the governor often says he's very disappointed we don't have any 'frackable' areas. We have shale; it just happens to have no gas in it."

"So, we can quote him on that?" I asked.

"You'll have to ask him the next time he's on your show," Esty said. Listen to the exchange below:

Meanwhile, it seems the market is pushing even harder toward a heavier reliance on natural gas. According to a report in The Hartford Courant, electricity rates are set to rise next year because we don't have enough gas pipelines flowing into the state to keep up with demand.  

We may not be "Gasland," but we're getting there.