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Unnatural Gas: The Inflated Promise of a Not-So-Clean Fuel

Stan Cox

Holding
out the prospect of
vast new domestic reserves, the natural gas industry is promising to
make the United
States
an energy-rich nation once again. But we should be careful what we wish
for.
Spending those riches could endanger water supplies for millions of
Americans
while still failing to solve the climate crisis.

Electric
utilities have
expanded their consumption because gas-fired plants can be "turned up"
to meet
high peak power demand more quickly than can coal-fired plants. Natural
gas is
also more climate-friendly than coal and less menacing than nuclear
energy.

With
the discovery of drilling techniques that can extract natural gas from
deep
shale formations, the authoritative Potential Gas Committee estimates
that the total of confirmed and potentially accessible gas reserves has
grown
35 percent in just three years.

Climate
bills
in the House and Senate contain strong incentives to increase drilling
and burning
of natural gas. Seized
by anti-coal fervor, most major environmental groups have gone along with the
gas rush.

But
natural gas is "clean"
only in contrast to coal - just as a bacon cheeseburger can be regarded
as
healthful compared with a double bacon cheeseburger. Per kilowatt of electricity
generated, gas releases 55
percent
as much carbon as coal. And gas drilling poses a growing
threat to
our water supplies.

The
investigative news organization ProPublica has documented
thousands of cases of surface and groundwater contamination caused by
drilling
in conventional and shale deposits in six states.

Concern
is now growing over hydraulic fracturing, in which water laced with
sand, clay
and "fracturing fluids" is pumped deep underground to create fissures
and free
gas trapped in rock formations. Most of the polluted water returns to
the
surface and must be handled as waste.

Drilling
in shale, which depends heavily on fracturing, can consume hundreds of
times
more water per well than does drilling in traditional gas fields.

In
Pennsylvania,
which shares the vast, gas-laden Marcellus shale formation with four
other
states, drilling is expected to generate 19
million gallons
of waste water daily by 2011, according to the
state's
Department of Environmental Protection. The water, which carries both
natural
and human-made toxins and is up to five times as salty as sea water,
puts a
heavy burden on water treatment plants. New
York
residents are working to prevent
drilling in the Marcellus formation, because its shale and gas underlie
the groundwater
source for millions of people downstate.

Meanwhile,
major fracturing-fluid manufacturers refuse to reveal their products'
ingredients. (Industry leader Halliburton maintains that to compel it
to list
the chemicals in its products would be an "unconstitutional
taking
" of its intellectual property.) Investigators have managed
to identify
many of compounds used in fluids, and many are toxic.
Some, including benzene, formaldehyde, 1,4-dioxane, ethylene dioxide
and nickel
sulfate, are confirmed carcinogens.

Gas
companies have enjoyed a slack environmental leash since the 2005
Energy Policy
Act exempted them from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act and
the
Water Pollution Control Act. Bills now stalled in Congress that
would re-regulate the industry need broader grassroots support.

Meanwhile,
in competing with
Big Coal for the affections of Congress, the newly formed America's
Natural Gas
Alliance (ANGA) launched
an $80 million advertising and lobbying campaign earlier this year to
promote
its "clean, abundant, American, reliable, and versatile" product. As
climate
bills work their way through Congress, ANGA's efforts appear to be
paying off.

Risking
our water so we can
burn more natural gas will not be the planet's miracle climate cure.
For the
United States to achieve necessary reductions in greenhouse emissions -
estimated at more than 80
percent
- will require not more energy production, even if somewhat
cleaner, but deep cuts in energy consumption.

Coal
must be phased out as
quickly as possible, but more gas won't accomplish that. While electric
utilities' gas consumption doubled from 1996 to 2007, coal use continued
its steady climb.

What
if, with shale
drilling, we could achieve another doubling of gas-fired electricity
generation, but this time eliminate an equivalent amount of coal-fired
generation? Even that steep escalation of gas drilling would cut the
utility
industry's carbon emissions by only 12 percent and the nation's total
carbon
emissions by just 5 percent, based on Energy Department figures.

Financier
T. Boone Pickens
recommends running our vehicles on natural gas. But substituting
natural gas
for gasoline in all vehicles would reduce the nation's total carbon
emissions
by less than 9 percent. Converting all gasoline-powered vehicles would
consume
more natural gas than electric utilities, homes and businesses
combined.
Consequences for the nation's water would be disastrous.

Natural
gas is being hailed
by some, including Pickens, as a high-energy "bridge" to a renewable
future,
and by others as sufficiently climate-friendly to be a "destination"
fuel. But
as gas' environmental drawbacks become more evident, it's looking more
like a
bridge to nowhere.


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