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Guest Column

May 21, 2011

Gas Wars: A play in three acts

Act One: The Prequel, starts in 2008 and ends with the publication of the Supplemental Generic Impact Statement.

The act begins with a wave of boilerplate drilling leases, the formation of landowner coalitions to counter those leases, the pushback by anti-drillers, and the Department of Environmental Conservation and Environmental Protection Agency hearings. Approaching the end of Act One, the anti-drillers control the narrative (gas drilling is bad; no good can come of it) and on the surface, they are in their ascendancy.

Act Two: The Empire State Strikes Back.

After three years of review, New York state issues the strictest set of guidelines in the nation for natural gas drilling. Since anti-drillers want to ban gas development, they will take to the courts. The court cases take time, but the anti-drillers inevitably lose.

Act Three: The Aftermath.

No one knows when the curtain rises on this act, but drilling comes slowly to New York. It starts in Broome and Tioga counties and slowly works its way north as infrastructure fills in. Otsego County is drilled because it has multiple gas plays estimated to contain at least 100 billion cubic feet per square mile. Otsego gas sells at $1 premium to Texas or Colorado gas because it's only 180 miles from the wellhead to a stove in Queens.

As gas flows out and money flows in, the loss of farmland in Otsego County stabilizes. Farmers don't have to work two jobs or sell of roadside parcels to survive. School (and general) populations start to rise as young families are once again able to find good-paying local jobs. School and town taxes stabilize and, hopefully, trend lower. Each well is a business, taxed separately, contributing to the community.

More jobs accrue as local businesses use local energy, giving them a competitive advantage. Plans for the use of Coventry gas for Bainbridge and Sidney businesses and residents are in the pipeline (pun intended).

As welders, truck drivers, gravel pit operators, carpenters and dozens of other businesses and occupations experience an uptick in activity, more jobs are created. Workers and landowners buy goods and services, thus creating more jobs. That's how it works.

There will be no wholesale degradation of the environment. Accidents will happen and there will be inconveniences, but no post-apocalyptic nightmare that the antis are predicting. Twenty years from now, people will wonder what the fuss was about.

In optimistic moments, I see people on both sides of the issue joining together to monitor and consult with industry to ensure safety and convenience, to suggest modifications for a flexible SGEIS, and to advocate for ample staff at the DEC for monitoring and enforcement.

Probably won't happen as long as the hardcore leadership pushes for renewables and sees cheap, plentiful, local natural gas as an obstacle to their goals.

A renewable energy future is an admirable goal, perhaps even attainable in some far-distant time. However, nationally and locally, we need a mix of energy sources and we need it now. We also need a basic understanding of TANSTAAFL _ There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.

Currently, a little more than 5 percent of our national energy mix is renewables. Roughly 3½ percent is hydroelectric. Wind and solar (less than 2 percent) have problems. Biggest problem _ sometimes the wind doesn't blow; the sun doesn't shine. When it does blow and shine, it's often in inconvenient places needing huge infrastructure investments. Wind and solar need market-distorting subsidies and mandates just to be marginally competitive. These subsidies usually support existing technologies rather than cutting-edge advances that might one day make renewables competitive.

A renewable such as hydroelectric needs 250 square miles of man-made Lake Mead behind a Hoover Dam. Goodbye, environment. Replacing just one of the two 1,000-megawatt reactors at Indian Point would require lining the Hudson River from New York City to Albany with 45-story windmills one-quarter mile apart. That's 600 windmills. But there's a catch _ the 600 windmills would only generate electricity one-third of the time, when the wind is blowing.

For solar, let's go local. Let's fill the fields across from the Clark Foundation building on state Route 28 with solar panels. Cooperstown would be provided with clean energy, but at what cost to the viewshed? Plus, panels have to be cleaned with water. Easy in Cooperstown; environmentally difficult in Arizona. TANSTAAFL, anyone?

Finally, what can renewables do for global trade? Diesel engines power 94 percent of trade, from oceangoing vessels to trains and trucks. It dominates because of cost, efficiency, reliability and durability. What kind of battery pack would be needed to power a container ship across an ocean? What's in the renewable pipeline to replace the gas turbine that has shrunk our world through transoceanic flight? There's nothing even remotely comparable.

As the Gas Wars unfold, no matter what the regs or how strictly they are enforced, accidents will inevitably occur. Just as inevitably, these accidents will be addressed and remediated, and life will go on. Otsego County could be on the cusp of an economic opportunity that, if managed wisely, will far outlast all of us who are at each other's throats. Misinformation, fear and emotion are no substitutes for reason and reality.

Dick Downey of Otego is a founding member of the Unatego Area Landowners Association.

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