By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Natural gas is portrayed as the “bridge fuel” that will save the US from uneven electricity supply and prices as we transition off coal and oil on our way toward using renewable biofuels, solar and wind power.

A drilling rig in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo: Green Right Now)

The industry has been positioning natural gas this way for a few years, presenting it as a fossil fuel with a difference – one that burns cleaner in gasoline engines and power generation plants, and helps walk back carbon emissions.

Natural gas does burn cleaner. That’s undeniably helpful. But unfortunately, that’s the beginning and the end of its clean energy story, despite the political fan base that natural gas has acquired.

Politicians from town councils to the White House seem enthralled with natural gas. They claim it’s the clean, cheap (it is at the moment) plentiful magic bullet that can secure America’s energy future and pump life into the doddering economy.

Natural gas has won favor as as a job-creating, local-economy boosting and ever-lastingly domestic energy source. The fact that much of it will get shipped overseas does not deter its fans, who consider that a business bonus.

It’s easy to see why politicians are holding this industry closer than a baby at a campaign rally. First, natural gas companies belong to the powerful oil and gas industry lobbying bloc, which donated nearly $150 million to Congressional lawmakers in 2011. High five and hugs all around there.

Secondly, the natural gas industry does employ a lot of people and argues that it can create 400,000 jobs by developing shale natural gas deposits across the US . Whether that’s a fair or trumped up assessment is material for a different story, this one being focused on the environmental issues that beg consideration.

And the third reason politicians are cuddling up to natural gas? The boom has been a beacon in dark economic times. It offers a simple story line — domestic energy = jobs + energy security — that can win votes. And it makes sense in 30 seconds!

Wind and solar farms make good stories too, if the audience cares about such things. But emergent technology that costs more and needs tiresome infusions of tax credits doesn’t create the same election-year tingle. It sounds pricey, far off and cumbersome. (They kill birds don’t they?) It stirs the passion of geeks but not the masses. And truthfully, it offends our friends in Oil & Gas.

Natural gas, by contrast, is on the ground now, teeming with flanneled crews and billowing out of our gas range burners. It’s been around for a long time and thanks to new fracking techniques, it’s poised to uncover a “Saudi Arabia” of gas deposits beneath US soil.

And yet, all the rah-rah ignores a sinkhole in the road ahead, say critics who’ve formed groups from the Hudson Valley to mountain communities in Colorado that oppose fracking: The extraction of natural gas using modern hydraulic fracturing techniques, despite powerful wishful thinking to the contrary, takes a heavy toll on the environment. It threatens water supplies, consumes acres of  fresh water and leaks pollutants into the air.

Let’s review:

Natural gas drilling threatens well water and aquifers

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” to release natural gas from deep shale formations has contaminated water supplies in several locations, from Dimock, Pa., to central Wyoming.

Drawing a direct cause-and-effect conclusion can be tricky, but in the Wyoming and Pennsylvania cases, the types of chemicals found in the water and the timing of the pollution point to nearby gas operations. Residents attested to authorities that their water became undrinkable after nearby drilling commenced.

Drillers disputed these claims. Moreover, they say that responsible companies can drill without harming underground water supplies by improving the wells’ concrete linings, implying that even if mistakes have been made, drilling can move ahead with better safeguards.

This is highly contentious ground. For years, the industry happily bragged that there’d been no confirmed cases of water contamination involving natural gas drilling. Then came the 2010 movie Gasland, which chronicled a backlog of complaints against drillers, and a series of reports by Pro Publica detailing numerous examples of apparent water contamination from nearby gas drilling.

A March 2012 report by Food&Water Watch called  Fracking: The New Global Water Crisis, updated the story, reporting that state regulators have flagged hundreds of incidents of environmental contamination by drillers with 451 Marcellus Shale operators cited for 1,544 violations in Pennsylvania alone.

In 2011, the federal EPA officially tiptoed into the water question, concurring with aggrieved residents that well water in Pavilion, Wyo., had been contaminated by benzene and methane from gas drilling operations.

Less than four months later, though, the EPA appears to be losing interest in pursuing water tainted by natural gas drilling.

Last week, the EPA dropped a claim that Range Resources Corp. had contaminated well water in Parker County, near Fort Worth. The EPA won an agreement  from Range to test the water in the area of its wells multiple times over the next year, but withdrew its 15-month old order demanding that Range supply two area households with safe drinking water.

The agency also reported in March that its initial tests at Dimock show the water is safe, even though at least 19 families in that community maintain that nearby drilling by Cabot Oil & Gas made their water undrinkable. The families have displayed cloudy water samples drawn from their tap at public events, and demonstrated the flammability of their tap water by igniting lighters next to running faucets — a show-and-tell exposing methane contamination that first achieved notoriety in Gasland.

One Dimock resident, dumbfounded by the EPA’s pronouncement that his water was safe, told Pro Publica:

“I’m sitting here looking at the values I have on my (data) sheet – I’m over the thresholds – and yet they are telling me my water is drinkable,” said Scott Ely, a Dimock resident whose water contains methane at three times the state limit, as well as lithium, a substance that can cause kidney and thyroid disorders. “I’m confused about the whole thing… I’m flabbergasted.”

Is the EPA is trying to wade out of the natural gas/water issue, perhaps in deference to the Obama Administration, which clearly wants to appear fossil fuel-friendly while promoting its “all of the above” domestic energy plan? Time will tell.

Meanwhile, the EPA also said it will review its 2011 conclusion that gas drilling contaminated water at Pavilion, Wyo..  The agency plans to test additional samples from the area gas fields and work with the state, affected native tribes and “a group of stakeholders and experts” to identify how  contaminants might be migrating into drinking water.

This additional inquiry seems worthy, but only as long as the “stakeholders” involved can be impartial.

Natural gas consumes water

The natural gas industry may pose an even greater threat to water via its direct consumption of this resource. Fracking gas wells consumes large volumes of freshwater, with each fracked well requiring conservatively 2 to 3 million gallons of water to blast open tight underground gas deposits.

Drillers get their water from many places. They may drill a well, use nearby city water or draw from area lakes for fracking. The industry has responded to concerns about its water footprint by increasing the use of greywater or recycled water it uses.

Even when fracking water is recycled for more fracking, however, the cycle still ends with water that’s been contaminated with the brew of lubricants, sand and chemicals that are mixed with the water to effectively blast open the deep shale gas deposits.

This fracking fluid typically contains dozens of chemicals, such as salt, lead, benzene. Some are toxic and even carcinogenic. (Companies released a list to Congress, but do not routinely report the composition of fracking fluid, which was exempted from disclosure in 2005.)

This water, once its been used to frack open shale deposits, now called “produced water” and laced with additional chemicals from its underground foray, including radioactive ingredients, is disposed of either in above-ground containment facilities or injected into disposal wells. It is largely unrecoverable. The cost to natural water stores is large.To get a crude idea, multiply the 369,000 natural gas wells operating in the top 10 natural gas producing states by 3 million gallons of water each, and the water price of these wells comes into focus: 1.1 trillion gallons. (A figure that’s already outdated, given that more gas wells are added daily.)

In Texas, which experienced a historic drought in 2011 and is predicted to face dry conditions for the coming decade and which tops the list of states with the most gas wells (76,436 in 2009), coal and fracking operations use an estimated 5 percent of the water supply, according to the Houston Chronicle.

That may not seem like much compared with agriculture’s 60 percent water usage. But the state doesn’t have much to spare, and while food is necessary, energy can come from sources that use much less water, such as wind and even solar, which uses water during manufacture but virtually none over decades of operation. Or so goes the environmental argument.

The spent toxic water produced by natural gas drilling is a growing pollution problem, say groups fighting fracking expansion.

“It is really easy to put chemicals into water; it is really hard – and expensive – to get them out again,” writes George de Piro, a New York brewer and supporter of “… Perhaps a century of safe water has made us complacent. Are we willing to risk contamination of life’s most important ingredient for short-term gain?”

According to the EPA, the preferred method of disposing of produced water is to inject it into deep wells, where it is thought to remain unable to contaminate water or air. However, these deep injection wells, and possibly some fracking operations, appear to be causing small earthquakes – and not in a few places. They’ve been reported in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Ohio. The link to drilling has not been proven, but the circumstantial evidence points strongly toward gas operations in the vicinity. This raises a question about whether fracturing disposal wells, or even some of the fracked gas wells that involve long horizontal drill paths, are destabilizing the geology in ways that could cause damage above ground and facilitate chemical leaching underground.

A study due out later this month from a US Geological Survey team reportedly concludes that an uptick in US earthquakes since 2001 is “man-made.”

“With gasoline prices at $4 a gallon, there’s pressure to rush ahead with drilling, but the USGS report is another piece of evidence that shows we have to proceed carefully,” said Dusty Horwitt, Senior Counsel and chief natural resources analyst at Environmental Working Group (EWG). “We can’t afford multi-million-dollar water pollution cleanups or earthquakes that could pose risks to homes and health.”

With 25 to 75 percent of fracking fluid remaining in the ground when a typical modern gas well has been installed, and the rest injected into disposal wells, questioning what happens to these chemicals seem reasonable. Could the chemical fracking cocktail mix with natural fluids, shift, seep and migrate into neighboring rock formations?

“How far and how fast this blend can travel and how it might change chemically, is impossible to know and control,” and could create new pathways for contamination, according to Fracking: The New Global Water Crisis.

Natural gas drilling threatens the air

As if natural gas drilling does not create enough risk around water, some critics see the natural gas boom, with its fracking methods, as an even bigger threat to the atmosphere.

Fracking releases air pollution as VOCs (volatile organic compounds), which contribute to smog, and methane, a greenhouse gas that’s 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Unless drillers meticulously cap their wellheads and use state-of-the-art valves, VOCs and methane escape into the atmosphere during natural gas production.

Fracking protesters in New York (Photo: Owen Crowley)

Slow leaks from equipment have been documented by state regulators, even in Texas, where natural gas critics say the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has been slow to fine gas operators. The TCEQ has acknowledged that emissions from gas operations contribute to the metro area’s chronic non-attainment status (failure to meet federal standards) for ozone pollution.

A 2011 $1 million study by the city of Fort Worth failed to find a definitive or serious air pollution threat when consultants sampled air near several natural gas pads. But a 2009 study by Cook Children’s Hospital in Fort Worth found that children living in the heavily drilled Barnett Shale region were 6 to 9 times more likely to suffer from asthma than kids in the general population.

Smog is widely understood to be an asthma trigger, along with mold, pollen and pet dander. Was air pollution from extensive gas drilling in Fort Worth aggravating the asthma situation? A paper produced about the same time in Dallas suggests it was.

2009 report by Dr. Al Armendariz, then a Southern Methodist University engineering professor and now chief of the EPA Region 6 based in Dallas, found that gas operations were the biggest contributor to smog in the Dallas-Fort Worth region.

“Emissions of smog-forming compounds in 2009 from all oil and gas sources were estimated to be approximately 191 tpd [tons per day] on an annual average, with peak summer emissions of 307 tpd. The portion of those emissions originating from the 5-counties in the D-FW metropolitan area with significant oil and gas production was 165 tpd during the summer.”

Regulation and improved industry safeguards, like better valves and fittings for pipes and tanks, has helped reduce those numbers, but the TCEQ still finds that oil and gas operations in the Dallas/Fort Worth region exceed the pollution from cars. The Downwinders at Risk, a North Texas citizens group fighting for better air quality, reported the latest findings last week:

“This year, again according to the state, all the cars and trucks in DFW will produce 80 tons per day of VOC air pollution. Oil and gas production in DFW will produce 114 tons per day of the same kinds of pollutants – 34 more tons a day than all cars and trucks combined, and the largest emissions by far from any one industry in North Texas.

What if the natural gas bridge is really a roadblock?

Even if these pollution problems could be regulated away or solved with new technology, a question remains: Could the natural gas bridge storyline be a red herring? What if the insistence on natural gas drilling and building compatible infrastructure, what the critics call the Mad Rush to Frack, forestalls the advancement of renewable energy instead of serving as stepping stone?

Nathan Myhrvold, the onetime Microsoft CTO, and Carnegie Institution climate scientist Ken Caldeira argue that that’s exactly what’s happening in a paper published in March. They compare the carbon reductions of different “transition” scenarios that would move the world off carbon-intensive energy, concluding that an immediate jump to renewable energy along with serious conservation measures is the only way to slow climate change by the second half of the 21st Century. (Carbon emissions stay in the atmosphere for 40 years, so today’s rollbacks cannot be felt immediately.)

“Conservation, wind, solar, nuclear power, and possibly carbon capture and storage appear to be able to achieve substantial climate benefits in the second half of this century; however, natural gas cannot,” the scientists say in the report, Greenhouse gases, climate change and the transition from coal to low-carbon electricity.

Why can the pro-drilling forces not see this? Noted environmentalist Bill McKibben muses in a recent article on TomDispatch that oil and gas operators could make good money off new clean energy technologies, while doing the right thing, but their company valuations and shareholder expectations are tied to the fossil fuels in the ground. They deny the toll on their environment, and the role of greenhouse gases in climate change, to keep their personal and corporate economic future secure, while risking the future of the planet, he writes.

“…they’re leveraging us deeper into an unpayable carbon debt — and with each passing day, they’re raking in unimaginable returns. ExxonMobil last week reported its 2011 profits at $41 billion, the second highest of all time. Do you wonder who owns the record? That would be ExxonMobil in 2008 at $45 billion,” McKibben writes, lamenting that  “the business models at the center of our economy are in the deepest possible conflict with physics and chemistry.”

Conventional fossil-fuel based companies are willing to trade off global health benefits as basic as clean air and water because they’re “swimming in money,” McKibben says. “Telling the truth about climate change would require pulling away the biggest punchbowl in history, right when the party is in full swing.”

Alternative energy businesses walk into this headwind with little except the argument that their methods are cleaner, more enduring and less polluting. Many have lived alongside natural gas, politely reticent, knowing it is more likely to thwart than facilitate a clean energy future.

Natural gas is a longtime wedge between renewable providers and the utility operators they seek to supply. At a geothermal news conference this week, geothermal entrepreneurs conceded that the current low price for natural gas has complicated negotiations to sell their energy to utilities.

Even in states with quotas for renewable energy – known as Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPSs) –  natural gas can plug up power openings, they said, qualifying as a cleaner fuel that helps diversify the grid, even though it’s not remotely renewable.

In some Western states, low-priced natural gas is now “filling up” the diversification requirements, putting downward pressure on renewable development, one geothermal executive explained.

The manufactured image of “clean energy” that the natural gas industry has carefully cultivated helps at the negotiation table. By distinguishing itself from its fossil cousins coal and oil, it can squeeze into a space that might otherwise be reserved for geothermal, solar and wind power initiatives. And it can avoid the label of being a heavy polluter, like coal, or a foreign influence tied to politicial enemies in the Middle East, like oil.

To many, those are good credentials. But increasingly, critics like the Sierra Club, the Environmental Defense Fund and the newly formed, argue that it places the bar too low; that natural gas still must to be held to account for its environmental footprint, even if it offers certain virtues.

One brighter note for those who wish renewable could achieve similar momentum: The three geothermal executives, reported that many utility executives do see the benefit of signing up for energy that’s truly renewable and can provide round-the-clock power, aka, geothermal power. (Wind and solar providers would argue that paired up, their operations also provide 24/7 coverage.)

Smart utility managers, the executives said, see these renewables as providing a hedge against fossil fuel price volatility.

Perhaps that is what it will take to shift toward a new paradigm, a recognition that natural gas, just like other fossil fuels, is a finite world commodity, subject to a variety of outside influences, which ultimately may not be as reliable, or as firmly local, as wind, solar and geothermal power.

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