Column | Our natural bounty deserves stewardship

Pennsylvania is blessed by a scenic beauty that is closely matched by the wealth of its natural resources.

We are fortunate to live here and enjoy nature’s bounty, which, in recent years, has largely presented itself in the form of vast shale gas reserves. In fact, Pennsylvania is the country’s fastest-growing producer of natural gas, a fact that is driving economic growth across the state in the form of drilling and pipelines, shifting power generation toward cleaner sources of energy and improving our nation’s energy security.

There are other, undesirable impacts of shale gas drilling, however.

There is, of course, the damage that is readily apparent, such as the noise and light pollution that mark drilling sites and the endless heavy truck traffic crossing the landscape.

But there’s other damage that is not visible to the eye yet just as serious, including groundwater contamination and methane leaking into the air from wells and equipment.

We aren’t doing very much right now to monitor and control air pollution from shale gas operations. This stance is short-sighted and will incur costs down the road — costs that aren’t hard to predict because we’ve seen them before. The timber and the coal booms of the 19th and 20th centuries spurred economic growth and, later, left our state with significant environmental costs.

We can and should do better in the 21st century.

In fact, better stewardship of our valuable shale gas is possible thanks to modern technology. Leak-detection equipment has become very effective and relatively inexpensive — an investment of less than a penny for every $4 to $5 in market value of natural gas can reduce leaks by 40 percent over a five-year period.

This is a smart investment that all companies operating in Pennsylvania could make if we ask our leaders to make it a priority.

It will be much more costly to address the consequences of a warming climate. And though moving away from coal toward natural gas means fewer carbon dioxide emissions, it also means more methane emissions unless we take steps to limit leaks.

Cutting carbon dioxide and methane is the most effective way to stem the current rate of warming and stabilize the climate, which in turn can head off the worst effects of climate change, such as severe storms and more frequent heat emergencies.

We can have a thriving economy and a clean and healthy environment, but it takes planning and smart oversight to strike that balance.

California and Colorado have already put rules in place to limit methane emissions. Because we have one of the largest shale gas reserves right here in Pennsylvania, we should be showing similar leadership.