Easton Express Times
Extracting domestic natural gas has become a “game changer” since President Barack Obama took office in 2009, and in Pennsylvania it’s been neither a Democratic nor Republican issue.
The state Department of Environmental Protection says it issued 1,742 permits for Marcellus Shale wells in 2009 under then-Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell and — as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, took off — 3,512 in 2011, the first year of his Republican successor, Gov. Tom Corbett.
In breaking down the energy policies of Obama’s re-election campaign and his Republican challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, fracking and natural gas are symbolic of the candidates’ views on the range of energy sources:
They’re both for domestic energy. The differences arise in how to meet their goals, with Obama favoring more careful regulation and Romney interested in letting industry lead, analysts say.
Fracking involves injecting copious amounts of sand- and chemical-laden water into the earth to free natural gas from the Marcellus Shale and other geologic formations. It has become a divisive issue over fears about its effects on the environment, but its rewards are showing.
Benefits of fracking
“Our average residential customer is paying 40 percent less in their natural gas bill than they did four years ago,” said Reading, Pa.-based UGI Utilities Inc. spokesman Joseph J. Swope.
UGI over the summer announced completion of its second interconnection station providing locally produced gas to its customers in north central counties such as Potter and Tioga.
Last week, the Pennsylvania DEP issued a permit for the state’s first power plant to be supplied at least partly with locally produced natural gas. Moxie Liberty LLC of Vienna, Va., plans to build the plant in Bradford County. East Brunswick, N.J.-based LS Power also announced plans for a similar plant using Marcellus Shale gas in western Pennsylvania’s Lawrence County.
“Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, just really has been a game changer over the last couple of years, both in terms of prices for natural gas and electricity and also in jobs, employment, particularly in Pennsylvania,” said Frank A. Felder, director of the Rutgers University Center for Energy, Economic & Environmental Policy.
Obama’s campaign touts an increase in domestic natural gas production in each year of his presidency. His campaign website says he supports “responsibly tapping our near 100-year supply of natural gas, which could support more than 600,000 jobs by the end of the decade.”
Romney calls fracking “of critical importance” and says the environmental impact of extracting natural gas — the cleanest-burning fossil fuel — “should not be considered in the abstract, but rather evaluated in comparison to the impact of utilizing the fuels that natural gas displaces, including coal.”
“Romney wants the states to regulate fracking and the Obama administration wants it to be done by the federal government, the Environmental Protection Agency,” Felder said.
Bringing the gas to the Lehigh Valley and other parts of the Northeast requires more pipelines, including the Williams Companies’ Transcontinental Gas Pipeline Co. Northeast Supply Link expansion that would add a natural gas pipeline through nearly seven miles of Hunterdon County. That project is awaiting New Jersey and federal permitting.
Pipelines themselves have become a campaign issue.
Obama earlier this year objected to the proposed 1,179-mile route of the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada over environmental concerns, suggesting that the pipeline should go around a sensitive aquifer in Nebraska. Obama encouraged the company to pursue a shorter project from Oklahoma to the Gulf Coast.
Romney promotes a “rational and streamlined approach to regulation.” On Keystone, his campaign says the delay has Canada considering a pipeline to its Pacific Coast, from where it would ship its oil to China.
“The president has cited a lot of statistical evidence that we’ve become less dependent on foreign oil since he’s become president, that domestic production of lots of different fossil fuels is up,” said Christopher P. Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion.
“Gov. Romney’s case is that all these indicators have happened in spite of the president’s policy rather than because of the president’s policy,” Borick continued, “that his policies have been a hindrance to the extraction of fossil fuels in particular and that his policies on, as he likes to say, picking winners and losers in the area of alternative fuels has been a failure.”
Republicans have seized on the Obama administration’s backing of the U.S. solar industry as a case where picking a winner has failed. In particular, they point to Solyndra Inc., a California-based solar panel maker that won a half-billion-dollar loan from the administration and then went bankrupt.
Edward Johnstonbaugh, an educator on energy savings and renewable energy sources at the Penn State Cooperative Extension in Westmoreland County, says he fears lingering effects on solar power from Solyndra.
“The technology though is ripe, it’s ready to go,” said Johnstonbaugh, coordinator of the Renewable Energy Showcase in August at Ag Progress Days on Penn State’s main campus. “We don’t need bad decisions setting the darned industry back another 10 or 15 years, and that’s what we’ve got under the current administration. There comes a time when the government needs to get out of the way.
To Johnstonbaugh, the key to expanding renewable energy is not “throwing money at them to prove they’re a good idea” but letting the economics work on a level playing field.
Obama’s campaign stands by keeping solar in the mix, citing the construction or approval of 29 renewable-energy projects on public lands creating nearly 12,500 new jobs and producing enough energy to power 1.3 million American homes.
Romney, on the other hand, is critical of what he calls the “Obama administration’s diversion of resources into green energy … at a time when the traditional energy sector — oil, gas, coal and nuclear — holds remarkable job-creating potential.”
Coal is the nation’s most abundant energy source, Romney’s campaign says. Felder, from Rutgers, said it generates a little less than half the nation’s electricity. Under Obama, the coal industry has suffered from stringent new rules on emissions, evident in the planned closure of GenOn Energy Inc.’s Upper Mount Bethel Township and Glen Gardner plants that burn coal, oil and natural gas.
Nuclear power support
On the opposite end of the energy spectrum from coal is nuclear power, which is on the rise as a desirable source under both campaigns.
The Nuclear Energy Institute in Washington, D.C., says nuclear power powers one in five American homes and enjoys the support of both parties as a virtually greenhouse gas-free energy source.
A March 2011 White House press briefing promoted by the institute calls nuclear power “an important part of our own energy future, along with renewable sources like wind, solar, natural gas and clean coal.”
Romney calls for nuclear regulation reform, noting 17 applications for 26 reactors pending before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. One is for Bell Bend, PPL Corp.’s proposed plant near its existing plant in the Berwick, Pa., area. It is so named for the nearby bend in the Susquehanna River.
“We continue to work to get approval of the combined operating license application. That process will take a couple of years yet,” PPL spokesman Joseph J. Scopelliti said in a statement. “The corporation has not made a final decision on whether to build Bell Bend. That decision is also a few years away.”
Felder, from Rutgers, said he hasn’t heard either candidate talk about what to do with mounting nuclear waste. The Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada stalled under Obama, delaying the federal government’s fulfillment of Congress’ 1980s law promising to take responsibility for long-term storage and disposal of high-level radioactive waste.
Congress, with every House seat and 33 Senate seats up for election this year, will help shape the energy policy of whomever is elected Nov. 6, Felder noted.
“They still have got to deal with Congress, which is likely to be split or could be split,” he said. “So what they want and what they get could be two different things.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
OBAMA-ROMNEY ENERGY VIEWS
President Barack Obama, a Democrat: Ordered temporary moratorium on deep-water drilling after the massive BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but U.S. produced more oil in 2010 than it has since 2003 and all forms of energy production have increased under Obama. Achieved historic increases in fuel economy standards that will save money at the pump while raising the cost of new vehicles. Achieved first-ever regulations on heat-trapping gases blamed for global warming and on toxic mercury pollution from power plants. Spent heavily on green energy and has embraced nuclear power as a clean source. Failed to persuade a Democratic Congress to pass limits he promised on carbon emissions. Set goal of cutting oil imports by half by 2020.
Republican candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney: Pledges U.S. will become independent of energy sources outside of North America by 2020, through more aggressive exploitation of domestic oil, gas, coal and other resources and quick approval of Keystone XL pipeline from Canada. Supports opening Atlantic and Pacific outer continental shelves to drilling, as well as Western lands, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and offshore Alaska. Says green power has yet to become viable and causes of climate change are unproved.