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Jul 132009

By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

Pity the American public trying to figure out where to stand on natural gas. There’s a cacophony of appeals to our patriotism, pocketbooks and desire to be eco-correct.

The latest twist comes from politicians in Congress, accompanied by oilman and clean energy trumpeter T. Boone Pickens,  who are promoting big tax breaks for natural gas-powered cars and fueling stations. The Natural Gas Act (Sen. 1408), proposed last week by Sen. Robert Menendez of (D-New Jersey) and co-sponsored by Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), would increase tax breaks for people and groups that buy vehicles that use compressed natural gas (CNG). It also would offer incentives to those developing CNG infrastructure, for example, doubling the property tax break for building a fueling station from $50,000 to $100,000.


This move has got some serious environmental potential: Compressed natural gas vehicles put out almost no harmful tailpipe emissions. Compared with traditional gasoline vehicles, they win the clean tailpipe competition hands down. Don’t believe me, take it from this synopsis by the Union for Concerned Scientists comparing emissions from CNG, diesel and gasoline engines.

Of course, you can’t easily fill up on natural gas because there are only a few hundred stations in the US. So this technology works better for government fleets that can refuel at a single source. This is a problem that could be solved in a couple ways, by converting gasoline cars, which is not very difficult, and by offering big government bonuses to people who can build more stations (people like T. Boone Pickens).

This could be good for Americans because natural gas, if the price holds, is cheaper than gasoline. Yea! And it’s mainly (for now) domestically sourced in the US and elsewhere in North America. Rah!


And yet, from an environmental perspective, the idea of gearing up for a future based on natural gas, another finite fossil fuel, really smells. In fact, it’s flammable. Ask the people in Ohio whose house exploded when leaking natural gas filled up their well and then their basement.

OK, call that an accident. It still leaves the question of environmental contamination from the whole process of natural gas extraction. Natural gas drilling causes significant air pollution. Last year, a researcher at Southern Methodist University determined that air pollution from natural gas drilling operations was nearly as great as that from autos and cars in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area. State environmental quality experts reviewed the SMU study and … concurred.

Natural gas drilling also can compromise groundwater, or at least, the under ground regions near groundwater, when dozens of chemicals (many of them known carcinogens like benzene linked to certain leukemias) are injected deep into the ground during the “fracking” process to access natural gas deposits.

These are serious environmental consequences, and we don’t even really know how serious because oil and gas companies have been exempted from disclosure on their hydraulic fracturing “fracking” formulas under the Clean Water Act.

In another turn of rich Washington D.C. irony, a different set of lawmakers has recently asked that this Clean Water exemption be overturned, so we can find out more about the chemicals being unleashed near our groundwater. So as Menendez and crew are pushing for more tax breaks for natural gas, another group is asking for more disclosure from the same industry via the Fracturing Responsiblity and Awareness of Chemicals Act. These aren’t mutually exclusive movements, necessarily, but they do illustrate how we Americans might suffer whiplash trying to follow natural gas developments.

Meantime, natural gas has wide support as a “bridge” solution while other technologies such as the batteries for all-electric vehicles and the wind and solar installations capable of powering buildings are developed.

“Natural gas is an important alternative fuel to help pave the way to energy independence, which will not only help keep us safer, but will also help reduce the high cost of fuel and, thus, high utility bills across the board,” said Hatch, at the news conference announcing SB 1408. Needless to say, Utah and Nevada contain extensive natural gas reserves. Menendez’s New Jersey sits astride a swath of reserves in the Northeast.

And there are more reserves in shale rock, now accessible, according to the industry, via new drilling methods.

But do we need it (or a better question may be, who needs it?) and at what environmental price? While there have been opposition groups to past surges on natural gas, and there are active pockets of local opponents, the large environmental groups appear to be undecided or at least uncharacteristically less vocal on this topic. (Except on the shale issue, which has louder opposition.)

If you want to know more about the potential downside of natural gas drilling, see the article Buried Secrets: Is Natural Gas Drilling Endangering U.S. Water Supplies?

And stay tuned, we’ll try to keep a nose out for the fumes too.

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