Last week, I had the chance to meet Dr. J. Winston Porter, an energy and environmental expert and former government regulator.
From 1985 to 1989, Porter was an assistant administrator at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, where he ran the national Superfund program. These days, he works as a consultant, helping companies with issues relating to solid waste management, hazardous waste, site remediation and public relations.
He also maintains an active speaking schedule, journeying around the country from his Leesburg, Va., home base to talk to civic groups, conferences and chambers of commerce. I caught up with him at the Heritage Hills Hotel, where he addressed the Lancaster Hempfield Rotary Club on the trends transforming America's energy landscape.
Afterward, he and I chatted. Here are some excerpts:
How closely have you been following the Marcellus Shale industry in Pennsylvania?
I've certainly read a lot about Pennsylvania, because I think it's sort of the granddaddy of shale operations. … I've visited a couple of sites, that kind of thing.
What are your views on our environmental protections (related to drilling)?
I think we're headed in the right direction. … I'm a believer that the companies and the regulators have to open up more and more about what's in the water. And they are. My experience as a regulator was always, if you had a big secret kept from the public, you usually had a problem.
I can understand the need for proprietary processes and so forth. But I think most of it is not terribly proprietary.
Act 13 restricted municipalities' zoning rights and said the vast majority of the zoning and permitting will happen at the state level. Conversely, the companies are trying very hard to keep the EPA out of it. They're trying to keep everything at the state level. Is that appropriate?
All these things are contentious, and I can't speak for every state or every county. But I think it's not a bad approach.
If I were a councilperson in a city or town, I think I would want to have as much power about local things as I could. But at the same time, it's pretty hard for every county to have the technical background --
And borough and township.
Exactly. And if you think that's bad, try having to go to the federal government for permits on everything. That's really hard.
I think the state is the primary regulator, or should be. … As a regulator, I always found the important thing was not to leave anybody out. People at the local level don't want to be lectured, "Here it is, take it or leave it." You've got to have a lot of good public hearings, and a lot of good input. Because (local people) are out there in the real world. Right down the street, people are fracking.
It seems to me the elephant in the room is climate change. There's all of this potential for (energy) development, but it's all going to be putting carbon in the air.
The good news, I guess, if there is any, is that gas is much cleaner than coal. Coal puts out about twice as many greenhouse gases. It's not perfect, it's not like wind, but you cut emissions in half. …
I'm not unconcerned, because there's no question we have more CO2 in the air than we used to, and that may or may not be doing things. But if you look at how complex the problem is — I read through all those U.N. reports, they come out every six years. It's interesting to look through that stuff. I don't think the other shoe has dropped yet. I think it'll be 50 years till we find out if we were right or wrong.
All things being equal, I'm all for efficiency. If we can put out less CO2, that probably means we have a more efficient process. That's good and it's probably good for the people making the energy and everyone else.
A few odds and ends to note from last week's news:
• The state Department of Environmental protection says air pollution from Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling is comparatively minor.
• The Susquehanna River Basin Commission says its namesake river is getting cleaner.