Natural gas doesn't deserve squeaky clean image
Follow along as I walk us up the steep learning curve about natural gas that Earthjustice, the environmental community and the nation are navigating. The curve suddenly steepened a few years ago when natural gas advocates started promoting their fuel as a refreshing alternative to coal and oil, and a bridge to a clean energy future.
If we have learned anything along the way, it is this: the clean reputation of natural gas is good PR, but lousy science.
For decades, Earthjustice has worked to protect special places on our public lands from being pockmarked by gas development. Our litigation has helped protect such treasures as the Wyoming Range south of the Tetons, Otero Mesa in southern New Mexico, the Roan Plateau in western Colorado, and some of the spectacular red rock country near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks in Utah.
Despite some improvements by the Obama administration in leasing and drilling policies, we are forced to keep fighting some of these battles. We’ve come to know that gas development can fragment wildlife habitat and industrialize a pristine landscape, and we’ve worked on federal and state rules to reduce those impacts.
We have also learned that gas development can make people sick. Air pollution from concentrated gas development has become a leading public health problem in many western communities. Pinedale, Wyoming, for example, population 6,000, has code red ozone days from intense gas development, sending children indoors and asthmatics to the hospitals. As gas development has spread to the east, communities in Pennsylvania are being hit with the same thing. Earthjustice sued the EPA to force it to adopt long-overdue air pollution controls on gas production, and the agency is now working on a proposal to at least begin that critical task.
The pursuit of natural gas in places like Pennsylvania wouldn’t be practical without a relatively new – and environmentally destructive – extraction technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Practically in the blink of an eye, rapid deployment of fracking technology has enabled gas to be produced from previously inaccessible shale formations which underlie much of the nation – Texas, Louisiana, the Rockies and a wide swath of eastern states, including Pennsylvania and New York. Pennsylvania alone has more than 75,000 wells (as of 2009).
Fracking has all the air quality problems of extracting by conventional means, plus a host of water quality and health concerns from the use of toxic chemicals in the fracking process and the production of vast quantities of polluted water with little or no treatment available before it is returned to the environment. We are deeply engaged in reducing the impacts of fracking with litigation, policy advocacy, and some savvy communications strategies.
But here comes the kicker. Gas has been widely touted as clean, less polluting than coal or oil, and an answer to addressing climate change.
There’s no question that burning gas doesn’t load us up with mercury, fill our lungs with soot, or cause acid rain, like coal, and burning gas produces less carbon than coal or oil. In some cases, environmental groups have stood shoulder to shoulder with the gas industry and promoted new taxpayer subsidies for developing more gas resources. The centerpiece of President Obama’s current energy and climate policy is a “Clean Energy Standard” that would count gas as clean energy.
But the closer scientists look, the more we learn about the methane emissions from gas production. Methane, the main component of natural gas, is a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide in forcing climate change. Several recent studies examine methane leakage and venting during gas drilling, production and transportation, and compare the life cycle climate impact of developing and using gas with the life cycle impact of coal. The studies indicate that if methane leaks and venting are not prevented, gas may be almost as carbon-intensive as coal.
One last twist: gas power is an important back-up for intermittently producing renewables like wind and solar, but if gas is developed when the price is artificially low, gas can displace renewables, squeezing them out of the market. A Reuters story last week said it all: “A widening shale gas revolution is killing the economics of renewable energy, even as falling costs allow wind and solar to overtake fossil fuels in niche areas.”
So, while we work to transition away from coal, we cannot let another fossil fuel to become locked in for generations, nor let it choke off the blossoming market for renewables. Here at Earthjustice we are working on cases that will force more studies of methane impacts and better controls over those releases, pressing to end exemptions from federal law and outright subsidies, and working to use federal and state laws to get gas right. I hope you will join us in this important work.