PITTSBURGH — Here, in the heart of coal country, at the center of the natural gas boom and the former foundation of U.S. manufacturing might, a long-shuttered auto plant now houses the Aquion Energy factory. Its workers are building innovative batteries to store solar- and wind-generated electricity.
Yet Aquion's best customers are across the globe, not down the street. The battery manufacturing plant sits southeast of Pittsburgh, atop the Marcellus Shale, the rich geographic formation that is one of the epicenters of the natural gas boom. So the battery storage systems the company makes aren't likely to be used here, a region brimming with abundant natural gas reserves and reliant on coal-fired plants for energy.
“The interesting paradox here is that we are a clean energy sitting on top of the largest natural gas deposit known in North America, maybe the world,” said Jay Whitacre, a scientist who spun Aquion off from research conducted at Carnegie Mellon University. “And we are producing technology to ship elsewhere, where there is no natural gas.”
America's recent energy boom has left little breathing room for solar and wind, as low prices for natural gas make it economically challenging for innovators to move U.S. utilities toward the wider use of renewable sources of energy.
Even the transition to abundant, cheap and relatively clean natural gas as a replacement for coal, a major contributor of greenhouse gases blamed for global warming, has split environmentalists. Some are concerned it will only delay development of sustainable alternatives.
Worldwide, renewable power is expected to increase by 40 percent in the next five years, according to an International Energy Agency forecast released in June. It's now the fastest-growing power generation sector, and it will make up almost a quarter of the global power mix by 2018, up from an estimated 20 percent in 2011.
But whether that expansion will continue has become a concern for environmentalists as the extent of the fracking boom — and its expansion of sources of traditional energy — becomes clear.
Gasoline prices have held steady, despite sanctions against Iran and a drop-off in production in major oil centers like Venezuela. And the abundance of new natural gas supplies has made it a practical replacement for coal in industries such as power generation.
The problem, said Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University, is that the United States is replacing one fossil fuel with another. Natural gas is part of the old economy, not part of the future, he said, and lingering too long with it as a bridge fuel could slow down the transition to renewable sources of electricity.
Chris Field, the director of the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology, said the boost in fracking has slowed the search for climate-smart ways of dealing with energy. He compares it to a heroin addict weaning himself off the drug with methadone. “Yes, it's a little bit better than being a heroin addict, but what you really want to do is kick the addiction altogether.”
Yet it's clear that President Barack Obama sees natural gas as part of the near-term energy mix. He said as much in June when he called natural gas “the transition fuel that can power our economy with less carbon pollution even as our businesses work to develop and then deploy more of the technology required for the even cleaner energy economy of the future.”
A few environmentalists agree, a development that has split the green movement over fracking.
Last spring, the Environmental Defense Fund, one of the nation's most prominent green groups, joined forces with several energy companies to form the Center for Sustainable Shale Development. The group wants to create best-practice standards for the fracking industry.
Those behind the center said they created it in a search for a “rational middle,” in the words of Andrew Place, the center's president, who also works for the energy company EQT. The center's statement includes innovative practices.
“It's not all or nothing,” Place said. “... It's fully possible to do it right, to do it well.”
The Environmental Defense Fund's involvement in the center was immediately attacked by 68 groups and individuals, led by the Civil Society Institute, a Massachusetts-based organization that focuses on environmental issues. “The very use of the word sustainable in the name is misleading, because there is nothing sustainable about shale oil or shale gas,” the group said in a letter directed at the Environmental Defense Fund.
Environmental cost has been the primary focus for much of the debate surrounding fracking. Studies linking fracking, or the waste it creates, to earthquakes and water pollution are frequently cited by opponents of the technique.
A disputed 2010 documentary on the environmental effects of fracking, “Gasland,” was nominated for an Academy Award and aired on HBO. For many Americans, the film, whose best-known scene shows a man seemingly setting his methane-tainted tap water on fire, was their introduction to the term “fracking.” The fracking industry dismissed its assertions as overblown and deceptive.
Here in southwestern Pennsylvania, such concerns resonate. It wasn't long ago that Pittsburgh was, in the words of writer James Parton, a teeming stew of smog, rail traffic and human endeavor at the confluence of three rivers that he labeled “hell with the lid off.” The place has a long history of boom and bust cycles driven by industries that spewed toxins into the air, polluted the rivers and tore up the landscape in search of coal.
That past should make people cautious about the fracking boom, says historian Joel Tarr, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who studies the environmental history of cities.
In Pittsburgh, the energy boom has forced leaders to think about what kind of economy they want. Pittsburgh weathered the recession better and recovered faster than most American cities because it already had been forced to diversify its economy after steel collapsed.
The natural gas boom in the Marcellus Shale helped, but the city's economy benefited as well from its diversity; no one sector of the economy is greater than 20 percent, including energy.
Among the worries in the business community: that academics and health care and finance professionals drawn to Pittsburgh because of its ranking as one of the nation's most livable cities will abandon it if the air and water quality worsen.
For many, that means finding a way to come to terms with a fracking boom that has become too big and too well developed to stop.
There have been missteps elsewhere. In July, the Justice Department announced a settlement with XTO Energy Inc., a subsidiary of Exxon Mobil Corp. XTO was ordered to pay a $100,000 fine for spilling wastewater that had been used in fracking; the spill occurred after a valve was left open at a storage tank in Lycoming County, Pa.
XTO also was ordered to pay $20 million to improve wastewater management practices in preventing spills as well as recycling and properly disposing of wastewater generated from natural gas exploration and production activities in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Nearly everyone is keeping an eye on the Obama administration's proposed new fracking rules for federal lands. The administration hopes the rules will also be a model for state regulations on private lands, the site of most fracking.
The rules would set standards for well integrity as well as how to manage polluted water that flows back to the surface. It's the first sweeping effort at federal oversight of the fracking boom.
Oil and gas companies say the rules go too far; environmentalists and some members of Congress say they don't go far enough. The proposed legislation has drawn more than 1.3 million comments.
In Pittsburgh, business leaders are hopeful whatever regulations emerge will prevent the kind of environmental pillaging that for decades gave this city the reputation of an industrial hell. In 1981, a new convention center in downtown Pittsburgh was built with its back to the Allegheny River. It was still too soon to showcase Pittsburgh's three rivers, which had served as the city's sewers just a generation earlier.
Now, though, when the weather is warm, kayak paddlers ply the Allegheny River on their lunch breaks. Baseball fans at the city's riverfront stadium are occasionally startled by swarms of mayflies, an insect that only flourishes in clean water and represents diversity in aquatic life.
Most telling, though, was the 2003 reopening of Pittsburgh's convention center. Designers made it face the river, with sweeping views.