The Global Warming Downside of Natural Gas
August 5, 2013
Kent Jackson / The Standard-Speaker
The view that natural gas is a source of clean, inexpensive energy undergoes scrutiny in Walter M. Brasch's new book, "Fracking Pennsylvania." Producing, distributing and using gas creates about half as much greenhouse gas as coal while releases of natural gas can trap 72 times as much heat as CO2. "The large (greenhouse gas) footprint of shale gas undercuts the logic of its use as a bridging fuel over coming decades, if the goal is to reduce global warming," Brasch reports.
(August 4, 2013) -- The view that natural gas will provide a century of clean, inexpensive energy undergoes scrutiny in Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting with Disaster, a new book by Walter M. Brasch.
Brasch, author of 18 other books and a Standard-Speaker columnist, researches claims made since the invention of horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, launched a gas boom in Pennsylvania and other states where gas lies deep underground in shale formations.
Fracking Pennsylvania (Greeley & Stone Publishers, $14.95) finds exaggerations about the size of gas reserves, jobs that the industry creates and the potential for gas to reduce climate change.
Fracking -- which pumps millions of gallons of water, sand and toxic chemicals underground to fracture rock -- poses risks to groundwater and the air that the industry and its supporters have discounted, but researchers are starting to study.
Even President Barack Obama touts natural gas. As America weans itself from coal and oil, natural gas can generate electricity and propel vehicles while the country devises ways to generate power without emitting greenhouse gases, the president has said.
Producing, distributing and using gas creates just about half as many greenhouse gases as coal.
But releases of gas from wells, accidents at pipelines and compressor stations and problems with drilling change the calculus.
Brasch notes that natural gas traps 72 times as much heat as carbon dioxide when it escapes, unburned, from wells. He cites a Cornell University report that found the "footprint" for shale gas is greater than for conventional gas or oil over any time frame and at least 20 percent greater than for coal.
"The large (greenhouse gas) footprint of shale gas undercuts the logic of its use as a bridging fuel over coming decades, if the goal is to reduce global warming," the report says.
Similarly, Brasch reports the supply of natural gas in Pennsylvania, first estimated by Penn State University professor Terry Engelder at 500 trillion cubic feet, enough to last a century, is more like 84 trillion cubic feet and will expire in a couple decades, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Brasch takes a hard look at the gas industry's claim that drilling occurs far below aquifers and cannot pollute groundwater. Researchers are exploring whether fracking fluids and contaminated water might move through natural fractures in the rock strata to reach aquifers, he reports.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in a three-year study verified by the USGS, found that fracking polluted 11 wells in Pavilion, Wyo., where the gas reserves were closer to the surface than in Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale.
Next year, the EPA will complete a study of fracking's effect on 10 sites, including three in Pennsylvania, Brasch writes.
In addition, water gets polluted from improper casings on gas wells. Water wells within a half-mile of drilling sites contained an average of 17 times more methane than other water wells, a 2011 study at Duke University found.
Pennsylvania Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Krancer has called all studies showing that methane gets into drinking water bogus, a point that Brasch notes in a section about political infringement upon science.
Water that flows back to the surface through the wells requires treatment or disposal. The flowback water contains fracking fluids - a mix of chemicals that the industry seeks to keep secret but, as Brasch documents, has killed fish and caused disease. Also, flowback water picks up salts and radiation while moving through underground rock.
While gas companies reuse one-third of the flowback water in Pennsylvania, the rest is stored in pits or tanks or shipped to injection wells, most of which are in other states. Municipal sewage treatment plants aren't capable of treating flowback water, but Pennsylvania granted a 10-year permit to Integrated Water Technologies to spread salts removed from flowback water onto icy roads.
Drilling a well takes millions of gallons of water so gas companies paid premiums for supplies in drought-stricken Texas. In Pennsylvania, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission liberally dispenses water withdrawal rights to gas companies, and some of that water goes to wells in other states, whereas the Delaware River Basin Commission held up withdrawals, Brasch found.
"Fracking Pennsylvania" recounts the story, which Brasch also told in Standard-Speaker columns last year, of 32 families evicted from the Riverdale Mobile Home Park near Jersey Shore in Lycoming County. They had to move when a water company bought the mobile home park to set up a water intake to supply gas drillers.
While Riverdale residents lost homes, others gained jobs through the gas boom.
Brasch, however, notes where claims of jobs created doesn't correspond with government labor statistics. Gas well workers mostly are not in labor unions, may lack health insurance and generally hold temporary jobs, as do many truck drivers who work as independent contractors. They nevertheless face health risks from fluids, fumes and even sand used in fracking.
Drilling a well might cost $5 million, but Brasch quotes financial analyst Deborah Rogers, who estimates that only one in five wells makes money.
"That is a whole lot of land used up in the search for wells that will make money," Rogers says in the book.
Land and water diverted to gas production reduces the resources available for farming, wildlife conservation and other uses.
Landowners who leased their property might have signed for low rates before realizing the value of their holdings. If their contract lacks an expiration date, the gas companies can tie up their land indefinitely.
After signing leases, landowners have trouble insuring, selling or re-mortgaging their properties.
Most royalties go to large landowners or for public lands. In Pennsylvania, the bottom 90 percent of landowners share 10 percent of the royalties.
Royalties and production generally decline after the first years that a well goes into production.
Because gas prices have dropped 60 percent since 2008, companies now are exporting gas, slowing production and waiting to drill wells until prices rise, Brasch writes.
"Years from now, thousands of landowners who allowed drilling on their property may wonder if the immediate gratification of a few dollars or even sudden wealth was worth the cost of what happened to the health and lifestyle of the people and their environment," Brasch writes.
Meanwhile, more than a few dollars flow from gas companies to politicians.
U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, R-11, Hazleton, owned stock worth more than $75,000 in eight gas companies as of last year.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett got $1.1 million for his campaign from the gas industry. He advocated against taxing gas companies even though the state faced a $4 billion deficit. In a compromise, Corbett accepted a tax that is among the lowest five of the 32 states that allow gas drilling.
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