The American Natural Gas Alliance has been celebrating the opening of air-conditioning season with hilarious TV commercials announcing that natural gas is “twice as clean as coal.” That is like saying “a bacon cheeseburger is twice as good for your heart as a double bacon cheeseburger.” In producing a kilowatt of electricity, gas generates 55 percent as much carbon dioxide as coal, and unburned methane (the chief component of gas) is a potent greenhouse gas. Currently, methane leaking along with oil from BP’s Gulf geyser is helping atomize the leaked oil, which then feeds bacteria, creating an oxygen-depleted “dead zone” in the surrounding ocean.
When air-conditioning units are running hard across the country on hot summer days, electric utilities rely largely on gas-fired plants to meet the huge peak power demand. And mining the gas to meet that demand is a dirty business.
The nonproft news organization ProPublica and other news groups have documented the environmental consequences of drilling for natural gas. They count more than a thousand cases of contamination that have been reported by courts and state and local governments in Colorado, New Mexico, Alabama, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Drilling activities allow gas and chemicals to seep into groundwater. Additional contamination occurs aboveground, writes ProPublica’s Abraham Lustgarten, “where accidental spills and leaky tanks, trucks and waste pits allowed benzene and other chemicals to leach into streams, springs and water wells.” However, he continues, “the precise nature and concentrations of the chemicals used by industry are considered trade secrets. Not even the EPA knows exactly what’s in the drilling fuids. And that, EPA scientists say, makes it impossible to vouch for the safety of the drilling process or precisely track its effects.”
The key innovation being employed to tap newly accessible gas reserves is hydraulic fracturing. In that process, water laced with sand, clay, and chemical additives (known as fracturing fuids) is pumped deep underground to create fssures in the rock and free trapped gas. Most of the polluted water returns to the surface and must be handled as waste. Despite corporate secrecy, some federal, state, and private investigators have managed to identify hundreds of compounds used in fracturing fuids, 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; therefore, people living near new or proposed gas-drilling operations receive even less protection than do people who have other kinds of polluters in their neighborhoods.
Drilling in shale can consume hundreds of times more water per well than does drilling in traditional gas felds. In Pennsylvania, which shares the Marcellus formation with four other states, drilling into shale reserves is expected to generate 19 million gallons of waste water daily by 2011, according to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection.