There has been a lot of debate recently over Natural Gas as an alternative fossil fuel to oil for transportation uses. With the release of films like “Gas Land” depicting some of the negative fall outs of ‘fracking’ and then counterarguments about the relative safety of the practice, it’s hard for most people to sort data driven evidence from rhetoric and political wrangling.
While natural gas is not a perfect or renewable fuel, it is an important alternative to reduce America’s oil usage in the intermediate term while we devote significant energy and resources towards developing viable biofuels, electric vehicles and other alternatives that are more renewable and sustainable.
To understand the current state of biofuel technology & electric cars - the limitations we face today and the hopes for the future, read our previous posts “The Future of Biofuel” and “Current Electric Car Ranges”.
Here is a quick primer on natural gas as a fuel and some of the basic arguments from both sides of the camp…
What is natural gas? According to Naturalgas.org, “Natural gas is a combustible mixture of hydrocarbon gases. While natural gas is formed primarily of methane, it can also include ethane, propane, butane and pentane.” Similar to petroleum, natural gas, is a fossil fuel made up of the remains of ancient plants, animals and microorganisms which have been compressed in the earth for millions of years under high pressure.
With all the controversy surrounding natural gas, it’s easy to forget that many Americans already use this fuel every day in their homes for cooking, heating and electricity. Almost 25% of our electricity in 2011 was generated from natural gas, and the EIA estimates that more than 30% of domestic electricity production will come from natural gas in 2012. Some cars already run on natural gas, about 1% of the nation’s total, with more planned to hit the roads in the near future.
What is fracking? Hydraulic fracturing, also known as ‘fracking’, is the process whereby water is pumped at high pressure into a site containing natural gas or petroluem deposits. Hydraulic fracturing is currently being used to extract both natural gas and crude oil. This technology is a major factor in the recent increase in domestic natural gas and oil production in the U.S.
The pressure of the water in the fracture cracks the rock surrounding the deposit so that the natural gas or crude oil can flow more freely into the wellbore. Once the crack is opened, a proppant is introduced to help maintain the opening in the rock. Proppants are usually materials like grains of sand, ceramics or other particulates.
Fracturing fluids are used to carry the proppant into the fissure and these chemical additives have been the source of much debate. They only make up about 0.5% of the total fracturing fluid, proppant and water mixture, but if they leak into the surrounding rock and there is a water source nearby, then groundwater may become contaminated.
The natural gas industry points out the fact that fracking occurs thousands of feet below drinking water aquifers and therefore, the drilling chemicals pose no risk. According to a 2011 New York Times article, Rex W. Tillerson, the chief executive of ExxonMobil, stated in a congressional hearing that, “There have been over a million wells hydraulically fractured in the history of the industry, and there is not one, not one, reported case of a freshwater aquifer having ever been contaminated from hydraulic fracturing. Not one.”
And a pair of recent studies, one from University of Texas and another from Stanford, have shown that fracking, which is done thousands of feet below the surface, poses no threat to drinking water. The studies do, however, agree that shoddy practices above ground may lead to contamination of water wells when there is a lack of oversight and regulation.
CNN spoke to Mark Zoback, a geophysics professor at Stanford University who studied this form of drilling for natural gas. Zoback explained, “I’m not trying to deny the existence of contamination, but the mechanism by which that contamination occurred is not the hydraulic fracturing mechanism.”
He pointed out that while tens of thousands of gas wells have been drilled across the country in recent years, there have been relatively few cases of chemicals contaminating drinking water supplies. Zoback also served on the Energy Department’s committee that examined fracking.
University of Texas Geologist Chip Groat, who also studied fracking, has findings to back up much of what Zoback reported. “We didn’t find (anything) happening related to shale gas that called for draconian measures in terms of regulations or prohibitions,” Groat said.
To counter this claim, opponents point to Dimock, Pennsylvania, the site that was featured in the “Gaslands” documentary after residents complained of cloudy, foul-smelling water. They believed that the nearby drilling by Cabot Oil & Gas Corp was to blame for the contamination.
Kate Sindon, an attorney for the environmental group the National Resources Defense Council told CNN, “What we’ve seen in state after state is that as this activity comes into the places where people live, comes into communities, there are tremendous impacts or potential impacts on people’s drinking-water supplies if it’s not properly regulated or evaluated.”
Yet, this May, the E.P.A. reported that tests of the water in 59 of the 61 homes in Dimock, PA came back showing that the water is safe to drink. Roy Seneca, a spokesman for the regional EPA office, told the Huffington Post, “This set of sampling did not show levels of contaminants that would give EPA reason to take further action.”
Opponents of fracking also point to an E.P.A. report released by Carla Greathouse, which documents a case of drinking water contamination from the drilling and claimed that the dangers to the environment and human health are greater than previously thought. It is mportant to note that the report was released in 1987 and documents a case of contamination from 1984 and yet it does counter the industry mantra that fracking is completely safe.
Despite their differences, both sides of the debate agree that better regulation of the operations above ground is important. An article out just last week from the BBC referenced a joint report from the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering which says that fracking is safe as long as it is properly conducted and regulated. The report was commissioned by the government’s chief scientist Sir John Beddington after fracking triggered some small tremors in Lancashire last year, at the site of the UK’s most advanced gas exploration project.
The report’s chair, Prof Robert Mair from Cambridge University told the BBC that:
>Our main conclusions are that the environmental risks of hydraulic fracturing for shale can can be safely managed provided there is best practice observed and provided it’s enforced through strong regulation. The UK regulatory system is up to the job for the present very small scale exploration activities, but there would need to be strengthening of the regulators if the government decides to proceed with more shale gas extraction, particularly at the production stage.
The ‘pros’ of natural gas
Proponents of natural gas as an alternative to oil typically point to the following facts
- We have lots of it. Recent reports show reserves within the United States of more than 300 trillion cubic feet of proved reserves. Estimates for the total domestic natural gas resource base vary, but it could support between 75 and 100 years of demand at current consumption levels.1 Our dependence on imported foreign oil is a important issue that currently contributes to deep insecurity in the nation’s food and fuel systems. Our recent post on “The Coming Saudi Oil Storm” gives a good background on what this may mean for the future.
- We already use it for heating our homes, electricity, for cooking and some industrial uses. It’s a part of our energy consumption and has already helped to replace some of our dependence on oil.
- Natural gas emits about 25% less CO2 than gasoline. So while it is not a ‘renewable’ fuel, it is more sustainable than gasoline and can serve as an important solution in the intermediate term until more ubiquitous renewables are available in the future.
- Natural gas is helping us to transition away from coal and it emits about half the pollution. According to a recent report from CNN Money, this shift has resulted in an unexpected drop in carbon emissions nationwide. Cheap natural gas, largely thanks to fracking technology, has allowed some utilities to switch away from coal to natural gas.
- There are no studies to show that fracking has contaminated groundwater. The evidence to date points towards problems stemming from sub-par practices above ground (disposal, wastewater treatment, etc). These are issues that could be solved with better oversight by regulatory agencies. In addition, fracking is a technology used for oil as well as natural gas so eliminating natural gas would not eliminate the practice of fracking.
The bottom line being, we need alternatives to oil and we need them now. The current alternative energy technologies, like second generation biofuels, while promising, do not do enough to replace oil especially in the realm of transportation. Natural gas serves as a currently viable fuel to reduce reliance on oil while working to develop more long range renewable alternatives.
The cons of natural gas
And on the other side, opponents of natural gas often cite the following
- It’s not renewable. Like oil, natural gas is a non-renewable fossil fuel.
- Opponents claim that fracking pollutes water supplies and has caused increased cancer rates in some areas. These arguments have not been proven but are often cited.
- Natural gas emits CO2 into the atmosphere when burned. While cleaner burning than oil, it is not a 100% clean fuel.
- Producing natural gas requires lots of energy and water inputs. This is important in a time when water supplies are precious and becoming more so. The recent drought in America has highlighted the situation of our overtaxed water reserves. You can read more on that previous post here.
For opponents, the bottom line on natural gas is that is not a clean fuel and the extraction of it using hydraulic fracking is too dangerous to justify further exploration. Rather we should be using our energy and dollars to fund cleaner alternatives to oil.
As more information is released and more studies are done on the issue, the debate over natural gas will surely continue. We will continue to explore both sides of this complex and important issue at Sustainable America. It is our mission to create resilience within the food and fuel systems in America. That means reducing our reliance on oil and especially foreign oil. Our current situation is unsustainable and insecure. It is our belief that natural gas can serve as an important fuel to reduce oil usage and eventually move on to a more sustainable and clean fuel in the future.
1. U.S. Energy Information Administration