For too long, on my “to do” list has been to post on the serious questions related to the booming in America’s natural gas reserves due to the development of “Fracking” (hydraulic fracturing) technology and approaches that have enabled exploitation of the massive amount of carbon atoms in shale natural gas.
We know that “Clean Coal” is an oxymoronic lie useful as an advertising slogan but (generously speaking) little substance behind it (at best, “less dirty coal” could be accurate). Deepwater Horizon has given us a very clear understanding that “Beyond Petroleum” made people feel good while the Bloody Polluters having been happily taking their cash to the bank. Yet, “clean natural gas” is a term that seems to roll off far too many tongues without, it seems, any realization of the irony that the best we can do with a fossil fuel is make it “less dirty” as opposed to clean.
Up front, let us be quite clear: when it comes to the actual burning process, natural gas is far (FAR) less dirty than coal or oil. For example, when it comes to electricity, roughly half the CO2 per kilowatt hour of coal and 40% less than oil. And, across almost every category of pollutant, natural gas emits far fewer pollutants. Without question, if given a choice between burning natural gas or oil or coal in your household or community, you would be a fool (at least on health grounds) not to choose natural gas. When it comes to fossil fuel burning, natural gas is FAR, FAR, FAR less dirty than the other options. Even so, despite the beautifully painted Washington, DC, buses (photo credit Kathy Doucette) and sloganeering around the world, FAR, FAR, FAR less dirty doesn’t make something “clean”.
The burning is only part of the process. The exploitation of fossil fuel resources creates damage and has great risk. Deepwater Horizon has made it starkly clear the risks of drilling for oil (at least for some).
Even though various mine disasters bring attention to coal mining and there is occasional visibility to the risks of coal waste, there remains a the near utter lack of realization by most Americans of the war on Appalachia called Mountain Top Removal and its devastating impacts.
Drilling for natural gas, as well, has significant impacts and high risks. These range from the crisscrossing landscapes with roads and drilling rigs to the potential leakage of methane (23 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas as CO2) to the risks of pollution from the process.
A decade ago, the United States was facing “peak natural gas”, with what looked to be declining reserves and declining production. This situation, after a period of a massive build-up of natural gas use (especially for electricity generation), created the requirement for development of an infrastructure for importing natural gas (thus, LNG facilities). However, “hydraulic fracturing” quickly developed into (what was / is seen as) a cost-effective path to release natural gas that was previously thought unexploitable. Very simply, hydraulic fracturing involves the pumping of (massive) amounts of fluid to crack (fracture) shale deposits to free up natural gas trapped in shale deposits. The seemingly miraculous Frakking has pushed “Peak Natural Gas” back decades or even centuries.
This leads to the question: a miracle at what cost?
Proponents argue, almost with BP fervor about the impossibility of a major disaster in offshore drilling, that hydraulic fracturing is safe and doesn’t pose risks to water supplies, the environment, or human health.
Those sorts of claims make one wonder why it was so critical to the industry to gain, as they did in 2005 energy legislation, an exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act for hydraulic fracturing. This was done, we are told, to provide protection to proprietary chemical mixes developed by different corporations to protect their business interests. Of course, those unknown (unstated) chemical cocktails pumped into the ground in massive quantities don’t present a risk to human health as it seems impossible to conceive that, in a democracy, Corporate interests (and personhood) would be given priority over citizen health.
However, despite industry claims, hydraulic fracturing to produce “clean natural gas” does seem to create quite real risks of polluting water supplies.
There are a number of cases in the U.S. where hydraulic fracturing is the prime suspect in incidences of impaired or polluted drinking water. In Alabama, Colorado, New Mexico, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming, incidents have been recorded in which residents have reported changes in water quality or quantity following fracturing operations of gas wells near their homes.
The dangers can be more immediate, we could even say more explosive:
Near Cleveland, Ohio, a house exploded in late 2007 after gas seeped into its water well. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources later issued a 153-page report  that blamed a nearby gas well’s faulty cement casing and hydraulic fracturing  — a deep-drilling process that shoots millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into the ground under explosive pressure — for pushing methane into an aquifer and causing the explosion.
In Dimock, Pa., where drilling recently began in the mammoth Marcellus shale deposit, several drinking water wells have exploded and nine others were found with so much gas that one homeowner was told to open a window if he planned to take a bath.
And, it is clear that Gasland has the fossil fuel industry concerned, as the ’spindoctors’ swarm to respond to it and shape discussion to dismiss public concerns..
by the looks of the PR attack campaign launched today, it looks like Gasland is starting to get under the skin of the oil and gas industry.
I guess the dinosaurs in the dirty fuel lobby don’t like videos of people who can light their tap water on fire after their wells are contaminated with methane gas,
An example of this entered my home today, with the Washington Post’s publication of an industry letter responding to an article reviewing Gasland.
If you need a break from worrying yourself sick about the still-gushing BP oil leak, I can tentatively recommend you watch Josh Fox’s artful and disturbing documentary “Gasland,” … It’s about the natural gas industry, which might be on the verge of insidiously ruining America’s water supply.
If your interest is to deflect public attention from hydraulic fracturing’s potential impact and risks to human health, this sort of review in The Washington Post would be the basis for concern. Listed on the web site with the title “cleaner, greener reporting required” is a letter from Daniel Whitten,”the vice president of strategic communications at America’s Natural Gas Alliance”.
Facts matter in the energy debate. The film “Gasland” strays from the facts in several key ways and should not be the foundation for meaningful dialogue on energy.
As per professional “strategic communications”, Whitten’s article has truth that, in aggregate, might not be so truthful. Yes, as per above, the actual burning of natural is far cleaner than other fossil fuels but, again, less dirty doesn’t equate to ‘clean’. And, while “natural gas production is subject to federal, state and local regulations that cover everything from initial permits to well construction to water disposal”, there are the very clear and strong exemptions that shield the cocktail mix from public knowledge.
And, well, Whitten’s claim that “As a transportation fuel, it is our best shot at easing U.S. dependence on foreign oil among our heaviest and busiest vehicles, such as bus and truck fleets” might be ‘truth’, but certainly isn’t truthful in terms of our options for reducing (ending) US dependence on foreign oil (on oil) while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
Stepping back a moment
As with all natural resource exploitation, it can be done more or less responsibly. It can occur with more or less diligence and risk. Natural gas, derived from hydraulic fracturing, does (seem to) represent a less dirty option to coal and oil such that increased use makes sense amid an overall transition to non-fossil fuel energy sources. To what extent are hydraulic fracturing problems due to risky operators cutting corners as opposed to the inherent risks of the process? Simply put, this is beyond my knowledge and expertise. It is clear, however, that hydraulic fracturing has risks, that hydraulic and that there are cases where fracturing has polluted water supplies and created other risks. That pollution and those risks have, for the most part, remained out of the public discussion — we deserve a better understanding of the risks and benefits of all energy sources, including of natural gas derived via hydaulic fracturing, with meaningful oversight and regulation to minimize (or reduce) the risks while securing the benefits.
A final note … less dirty …
Amid it all, however, we cannot forget. We have yet to determine a path where fossil fuel energy use is ‘clean’ — ‘clean’ across its lifecycle from exploration, to exploitation, to transportation and processing, to final use. Simply put, ‘clean coal‘, clean oil, clean natural gas — these are manipulative terms that foster complacency in the face of the very real risks of and damage from our fossil foolish ways.