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.
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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.