Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A “Golden Age” for Natural Gas Could Be the Dark Ages for Clean Air and Water

NaturalGasWatch.orgJun 8th, 2011 | By admin | Category: Lead Articles

Two days ago, the International Energy Agency issued a report that declared the world could be on the verge of the “Golden Age of Natural Gas,” citing increasing demand and concerns about nuclear power as two of the factors that have laid the groundwork for this glorious era-to-be.

The report stated that demand for the fuel could soar as much as 50 percent from 2010 levels and account for as much as 25 percent of global energy consumption by 2035.

The EIA report also noted that the environmental benefits might not be as large as one might anticipate as methane pushes out other alternative fuels, and also gave mention to the questions that surround the recovery of so-called “unconventional” methane.

“Unconventional,” is, of course, industry-speak for shale gas, which must be recovered via hydraulic fracturing, or fracking as it has come to be known — and this is where the serious questions begin to bubble up like methane through a leaky, old, cast-iron pipeline.

And make no mistake, there are many.

First, although many a fracker has declared the process to be safe, claiming that thousands of wells have been fracked in this nation over the years and not once has any fracking fluid every shown up in anyone’s drinking water, the fact is, some serious questions have been raised about methane showing up in drinking water. Just ask the folks who live in the Marcellus shale region of this country.

A case in point: a recent study from researchers at Duke University established a direct link between fracking and increased methane levels in drinking water in areas where fracking has occurred, and while methane itself may not be poisonous and is naturally occurring, as many of the fracking apologists like to point out, these concerns suggest that, at a minimum, a lot more research needs to be done.

Which is why Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley ordered a study of the environmental impact of hydraulic fracturing in western Maryland.

“While we are mindful of the potential economic and energy benefits that could arise from the production of natural gas from the Marcellus Shale reserves in Maryland, we are also very concerned about an array of issues that have been raised regarding the use of hydraulic fracturing to extract this fuel,” O’Malley said in a press release announcing the decision.

Those concerns would include blowouts, spills, leaks and fires, which occur with disturbing regularity in the shale region.

Second, a recent study by researchers at Cornell University suggested that the environmental cost of getting shale gas out of the ground and into the market is much higher than that of conventional gas and, as a result, the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the use of shale gas could be even greater than those of coal when these costs are factored in to the equation.

And then there’s the absolutely deplorable state of America’s natural gas infrastructure. The fact is, our natural gas infrastructure is already overburdened, and explosions and leaks of enormous magnitude occur with disturbing regularity all across the country and in many states the pipelines are so leaky they are barely able to handle the load that is placed on them now. In Massachusetts alone, conservative estimates put the amount of fugitive methane emissions from leaky natural gas pipelines at approximately 12 billion cubic feet per year.

Methane is, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, a greenhouse gas emission that is 21 times more destructive to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, those Cornell calculations begin to look more plausible.

One can’t help but think that the IEA might have overstated the case a bit. Indeed,

Indeed, given these concerns — and the fact that methane could push out other, cleaner renewables as it comes into heavier use — one can’t help but wonder whether or not the Golden Age of Gas, as the EIA so optimistically put it, could actually mean the Dark Ages for Clean Water and Air.

Let’s hope not.

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