The nuclear accident in Japan may undermine support for nuclear power here in the U.S. If it does, other sectors of the energy economy stand to benefit, none more than the natural gas industry. So the Japanese disaster could speed development of a huge natural gas reserve that sits below some of the most populous states on the East Coast. It's called the Marcellus Shale.

NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE: A few years ago, this hilltop in northeastern Pennsylvania was forest and farmland. Today, it's a brand new industrial site: a collection of pipes and compressors that help move natural gas from local wells to market.

Mr. MICHAEL DICKINSON (Manager, Williams): We're standing at the Lathrop compressor station right now. There's about 75 wells behind this particular station, and plans to double that over the next couple of years.

ROSE: Michael Dickinson is a manager for Williams. The company operates two compressor stations in Pennsylvania with plans to add three more. And it's building a new 30-mile stretch of pipeline to transport natural gas on to Philadelphia and to New York City. Dickinson and I watched while contractors in hard hats and overalls welded big sections of steel pipeline together.

Mr. DICKINSON: Those pipelines are kind of like the railroads are to the coal industry, or the high line wires are to the electricity industry. We have to have those pipelines - that infrastructure - to get this gas to the place that it can be used.

ROSE: Natural gases is booming in the Marcellus shale, which runs from Kentucky to upstate New York and problems halfway around the world at the Fukushima nuclear plant may only add to that growth. Energy experts say the U.S. and other countries will likely put the brakes on plans for additional nuclear power plants, at least in the short run.

Mr. DANIEL YERGIN (Chairman, IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates): The big beneficiary here will be natural gas.

ROSE: Daniel Yergin is the chairman of Cambridge Energy Research Associates, an energy consulting company. Natural gas is relatively clean and cheap to burn, says Yergin, while environmental regulations in the U.S. make new coal plants unlikely and renewable power sources like wind just aren't ready to satisfy the demand for electricity.

Mr. YERGIN: Natural gas, now, has become much more competitive as a source of new electric generation in the United States. That was true before the nuclear accident. It is even more true after the accident.

ROSE: Pennsylvania's new governor is eager to exploit the state's gas reserves. Here's Republican Tom Corbett in his first budget address last month.

Governor TOM CORBETT (Republican, Pennsylvania): Let's make Pennsylvania the Texas of the natural gas boom. I'm determined that Pennsylvania not lose this moment.

(Soundbite of applause)

ROSE: Corbett says Pennsylvania needs the thousands of new jobs the gas industry promises. But the issue is increasingly divisive. In order to get gas out of the ground, drillers have to use a process known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking. That produces lots of wastewater, which critics fear will contaminate drinking water supplies.

Director Josh Fox talks about those concerns in his controversial Oscar-nominated documentary "Gasland."

(Soundbite of movie, "Gasland")

Mr. JOSH FOX (Director, "Gasland"): You're probably saying to yourself, that's insane. That water contains all the fracking chemicals which are toxic and all the volatile organics which are also toxic.

ROSE: Natural gas industry and state regulators denounced "Gasland" as misleading and one-sided. But those who study the industry say you can't dismiss the film's claims entirely.

David Yoxtheimer is a hydrogeologist at Penn State University.

Mr. DAVID YOXTHEIMER (Hydrogeologist, Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research, Penn State University): The industry, in earnest, is trying to do the right thing in, you know, most cases. Now, have there been some unfortunate environmental incidents? No doubt about it. So, what we need to do is make sure we do have the proper regulations in place, make sure the companies are using the best available technologies.

ROSE: For now, regulators in New York have put a moratorium on new gas wells while they study the environmental impact. In Pennsylvania, Governor Corbett created a commission to explore whether new regulations are necessary. But the commission may have to work fast, because no one expects the natural gas industry to wait.

Joel Rose, NPR News.

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