The Natural Threat To Rural Communities

America’s rural communities are starting to feel the pinch of fossil fuel exploration. Recent discoveries of massive natural gas stores in North Dakota have led to huge influxes of workers and equipment-filled trucks into small rural communities in the Western half of the state.  In such a tough economy these developments may seem like a blessing, however, the small towns are having trouble providing for the new members of the community; moreover, communities, such as those in Western North Dakota, are beginning to say “no” to natural gas development near their towns.  The modern day gold rush for natural gas points out a gleaming problem with the United States energy infrastructure.

We’ve all seen the television and internet advertisements promoting natural gas as the clean fuel of future; the truth is, those advertisements are not entirely true.  Indeed, natural gas is the cleanest burning of all fossil fuels; but advertisements focus solely on the burning of the fuel, while neglecting the invasive extraction methods used to obtain the gas, and ignoring the fact that natural gas in no way lessens the United State’s dependence on fossil fuel. 

Mounting evidence show a strong correlation between natural gas development and high levels of groundwater contaminants.  During the drilling process, companies use a method called hydraulic fracturing (AKA fracking) to release gas stores.  The process of fracking pumps thousands of pounds of highly pressurized, corrosive fluids into the bedrock to break it down.  The fluids tend to dissipate throughout the bedrock layer and can find its way into groundwater sources, thus contaminating the source and rendering it hazardous for consumption by anybody.  The contamination can be so bad that tap water can be ignited due to the fracking fluids in the well.  Furthermore, the companies who drill wells have no obligation to repay land owner for damages if groundwater contamination occurs.    

Natural gas’s slingshot into the mainstream of the United State energy sector came on the heels of the creation of the National Energy Policy Development Group (NEPDG) under the Bush administration.  This energy task force, headed by Dick Cheney, quietly paved the way for the development of natural gas wells all over the country, while violating private and government land ownership rights and environmental regulations.  Currently, legality of the task force is being determined in court due to significant involvement of special interest groups (particularly oil and gas companies) in the creation of the doctrine; however, while tied up in the judicial process, the doctrine is still in effect.  This means natural gas exploration will continue until a moratorium is placed on the activity or the doctrine is amended.

A community has the potential to benefit from energy infrastructure development because of the economic stimulus provided to the area.  United States citizens should understand that something is amiss when communities do not welcome natural gas development with open arms; the externalities of natural gas drilling far outweigh the economic benefit for rural communities, and sadly, most communities do not have adequate funds to fight oil/gas companies in court when damages occur.  America’s small towns act as a sacrificial lamb while the rest of America gets cheap, “clean” fossil fuel energy without seeing the environmental degradation the host communities must incur.  To call natural gas a green form of energy is one of the greatest examples of “greenwashing” in existence and a red herring for a practical, environmentally friendly energy solution for the United States.   The sooner the general public can understand this fact, the sooner the United States can start making true progress in the field of renewable energy.

Photo Credit: flickr.com/photos/afiler/3825497199/sizes/m/in/photostream/

Change from Coal to Natural Gas Won’t Help Global Warming, New Study Finds

A new study claims that switching from coal to natural gas would not create a significant slowdown in global warning, challenging the views of natural gas proponents.

The study, set to be published in the October issue of peer-reviewed journal Climate Change Letters, argues that while the change “would reduce emissions of carbon dioxide,” it would also reduce the release of sulfates and particles that block some of the sun’s rays and cool the earth. In other words, the study says, though burning coal contributes to global warming, it also helps control it.

“This particle effect is a double-edged sword because reducing them is a good thing in terms of lessening air pollution and acid rain,” said the study’s author, Tom Wigley of the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the University of Adelaide in Australia. “But the paradox is when we clean up these particles, it slows down efforts to reduce global warming.”

Though eventually a switch to natural gas would slightly decrease global warming, the study finds, the process would take time. A lot of time.

“Relying more on natural gas…would do little to help solve the climate problem,” said Wigley. “It would be many decades before it would slow down global warming at all, and even then it would just be making a difference around the edges.”

Indeed, Wigley’s computer models indicate that an international transition to natural gas would only slow global warming by “a few tenths of a degree” Fahrenheit. Actually, he found, it would even mildly accelerate the rate of global warming until about 2050, without methane leaks. With methane leaks, 2140.

Methane, Wigley said in a statement, is a greenhouse gas around twenty times stronger than carbon dioxide. An increased use of natural gas could create an increased risk in methane leaks, he warned.

The new study supports research done by Cornell ecologist Robert Howarth.

But not everyone agrees.

The Center for American Progress (CAP) advocates natural gas as a “bridge fuel,” or a tool that could ease our move from fossil fuels to greener energy sources. The group claims that a shift to natural gas could reduce oil consumption by 1.2 million barrels a day by 2035. 

“It is imperative that our nation continues to move away from its heavy reliance on coal. Even if the greenhouse benefits of natural gas turn out to be less than now assumed, gas is preferable because it produces fewer other pollutants compared to coal,” wrote one of CAP’s environmental experts, Tom Kenworthy, in an August 2011 article.

According to 2009 numbers from the CIA World Factbook, the United States produces an estimated 593.4 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year, while it consumes 646.6 billion cubic meters. The graphic above displays a map of natural gas production in cubic meters by country according to November 2006 CIA World Factbook figures. (Photo Credit: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Natural_gas_production_world.PNG)

However, the number of natural gas rigs in the US is slightly declining, set at 892 this week by oil service firm Baker Hughes.

But amidst the numbers and stark opinions, Wigley maintains that climate change isn’t as simple as it appears.

“From the CO2 perspective, gas is cleaner, but from the climate perspective, it gets complicated.”

Photo Credit: wikimediafoundation.org/wiki/File:Strip_coal_mining.jpg

France Bans “Fracking” for Gas

The iconically beautiful French countryside will remain safe from a series of new natural gas extraction projects, as the French government has outlawed the controversial extraction method known as “fracking.”  The Western European nation, which is believed to have some of the biggest natural reserves in Europe, is the first country in the world to put an outright ban on fracking.

Fracking, a term that’s short for hydraulic fracturing, involves injecting water and sand mixed with a cocktail of synthetic chemicals deep into underground oil shale deposits, to force out hidden reserves of natural gas that cannot be extracted any other way.  Pioneered in the early years of the twenty-first century by companies like Halliburton, fracking has dramatically increased estimates of the amount of natural gas that could be recovered for fuel in the US and other countries. 

However fracking comes with huge environmental costs.  Many of the nearly six hundred chemical compounds used for gas fracking are dangerous to human health, and can pollute drinking water by seeping into groundwater near a fracking site.  In the US, energy companies in most states aren’t required to disclose what chemicals they use while fracking; but widely used compounds include the carcinogen benzene and more than sixty other chemicals that cause cancer or other health problems.

Fracking also frees underground deposits of methane gas that can seep into groundwater or escape into the air.  In some parts of the US where fracking is widespread, water from an indoor tap can actually become flammable due to methane released by nearby fracking projects.  The image of water from a faucet being lit on fire with a match has become a rallying point for environmentalists concerned about the dangers of fracking for gas.

In other countries fracking is also controversial, as shown by a rash of large protests that broke out in France in response to proposals to begin fracking the nation’s large shale gas deposits.  On June 21st the French National Assembly, the lower legislative chamber in France, voted to ban the practice of fracking outright.  Last week, on June 30th, the legislation was passed by the French Senate and became law.

Not everyone is happy about France’s new fracking ban, or agrees that it goes far enough.  Members of the French Socialist Party opposed the legislation on the grounds that it will not do enough to bring destructive extraction projects to a halt.  Lawmakers from the Socialist Party argued that all methods of drilling in shale deposits, not just fracking, should be banned. 

Still, by making fracking illegal France has taken a step that could reverberate throughout the world.  From South Africa to Canada, countries with large natural gas deposits are under pressure from industry to allow fracking to move forward.  Yet France’s decision that the environmental and health costs of fracking outweigh any benefits may inspire other countries to put similar restrictions on the practice.

In the US, New Jersey has implemented the first statewide legislative ban on fracking, while other states and local governments look at stronger regulations to control the damage from natural gas extraction.  Fracking companies in Texas are now required to publicly disclose a list of chemicals they use during the fracking process, making it easier for environmental groups and nearby communities to judge the risk to local water supplies. 

As fracking spreads across the US and around the world, and as the health impacts associated with it become more widely known, lawmakers at the state and national levels will have to decide how to deal with the impact of this new type of gas extraction.  Last week France became the first nation in the world to decide to ban fracking, but it will probably not be the last.

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/endymion120/5023861260/sizes/m/in/photostream/

Natural Gas Accident in Pennsylvania Releases Toxic Waste Fluids

A natural gas blowout in Bradford County, Pennsylvania has heightened concerns about the safety of a particular gas extracting process. Last Tuesday thousands of gallons of natural gas drilling waste fluids seeped onto farmlands and nearby streams for more than 12 continuous hours due to “equipment failure,” as described by Chief Jennings of the Canton Fire Department. Seven families were asked to evacuate. All have returned except one, who has been temporarily relocated until further safety measures are taken.

The fluid was contained and emergency crews were able to prevent further leakage into neighboring Towanda Creek by Wednesday afternoon using “secondary containment mechanisms”.

“Evidently the crack is in the top part of the well below the blowout preventer”, deputy director of the Bradford County Emergency Management Agency, Skip Roupp, explained on Wednesday afternoon. Further investigation was necessary because investigators did not “really know what happened yet.”

Initial scene sampling was conducted in areas surrounding the accident indicating little significant effect to local waterways. But residents and environmentalists are wary that the particular technique used to extract natural gas from this area could be a dangerous process that can pollute the water. The method, called “fracking”, is a process involving the addition of millions of gallons of water to cause enormous pressure used to crack underground rocks, in turn, releasing the needed gas.

Brian Grove, director of corporate development for Chesapeake Energy, could not say whether drilling will resume in the well until further investigation and precautions are taken.

Photo credit: epa.gov/sciencematters/june2010/images/fracking.jpg

Hydraulic Fracturing ‘Hydrofracking’ Releasing Radioactive Decay in Drinking Water

February 27, 2011 – By Mason Williams

Health concerns about hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking, used to drill for natural gas have been growing lately. The biggest health concern stemming from hydrofracking is the introduction of radioactive decay into drinking water and the failure of sewage treatment plants to remove these deadly toxins.

The documentary Gasland, an expose in the New York Times, and a series of articles in ProPublica have focused the public’s attention on the dangers of hydrofracking. Hydrofracking is a relatively new drilling technique that permits the extraction of natural gas reserves that otherwise would have been inaccessible.

With hydrofracking, a mixture of water, sand and chemicals are injected at high pressure into rock formations. This breaks up the shale and surrounding rocks, thereby releasing the natural gas. An obvious byproduct of this process is the massive amounts of wastewater discharged, which includes naturally occurring underground carcinogens such as benzene and radium.

This wastewater then needs to be treated so it can be safely returned to the water cycle. However, according to EPA documents obtained by the New York Times, the wastewater is sometimes shipped to sewage treatment plants that are not designed to properly remove the toxins. Thus, the wastewater is released by the sewage treatment plant back into the natural water system without being properly cleaned. This wastewater then becomes part of a region’s drinking water source.

The health effects of natural gas hydrofracking is being seen especially in the states of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Texas, Ohio and Colorado. All five of these states have large natural gas deposits and hydrofracking is being widely utilized.

Pennsylvania in particular is experiencing the negative effects of hydrofracking. That state sits on top of one of the largest known natural gas reserves called the Marcellus Shale. This giant rock formation, which also touches Virginia and New York, is believed to hold the biggest natural gas reserve in the country. Extracting much of this natural gas requires hydrofracking, and has resulted in a sharp increase in both water and air pollution in the region.

Surprisingly, despite the increased pollution levels stemming from these operations, little has been done by state and federal regulators to increase oversight of wastewater disposal. In fact, most drinking water intake plants in Pennsylvania that are downstream from sewage treatment plants processing hydrofracking wastewater do not test for radioactivity. What the exact effects of increased radioactive waste in that region’s drinking water is still unclear.

EPA to Hold Hearings on Natural Gas Hydraulic Fracking Review

[img_assist|nid=193468|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=225|height=281]Sept. 13, 2010 (GreenAnswers) – The latest battle over a natural gas drilling process known as hydraulic fracking will take place in upstate New York this week. Scheduled for Monday and Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency will be conducting public hearings on the controversial drilling technique in Binghamtom, New York.

The location of the hearings is important, as the natural gas industry has been advocating for the opening of massive gas reserves in New York’s Marcellus shale region. This particular reserve includes the important Catskills watershed, which provides all of the drinking water for New York City. There are concerns that dangers associated with fracking could result in widespread contamination.

Opponents argue that some of the dangers from fracking stem from the mixture of chemicals that are injected at high pressure into the earth during the process. Since Congress, in 2005, exempted fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act, natural gas drillers are not required to disclose what chemicals are contained in these mixtures. Some of the potential chemicals used include barium, strontium, benzene, glycol-ethers, toluene, 2-(2-methoxyethoxy) ethanol, and nonylphenols.

The EPA’s hearings this week will focus on determining how broad of a focus the agency should take in its examination of fracking. While environmental groups, such as the NRDC, advocate a broad and comprehensive analysis of the procedure, industry groups unsurprisingly want a narrow review.