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5 Reasons Natural Gas Won’t Be an Environmental and Economic Savior

We aren’t going to be able to drill our way out of the climate crisis without creating an even bigger mess in the process.

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If you’re hoping the natural gas boom means we’ve solved our environmental and economic woes, you’re going to be disappointed. While natural gas produces less nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide when burned compared to coal or oil, the end product is only part of the story. The natural gas boom in recent years has been fueled by extreme extraction methods like fracking that are posing a new slurry of environmental problems before the gas even makes it to consumers.  

If you look at the complete picture of how we extract natural gas today, you begin to realize pretty quickly that we aren’t going to be able to drill our way out of the climate crisis without creating an even bigger mess in the process. The list of impacts from fracking is huge, but here are five to kick off the conversation:

1. Methane 

Natural gas may release less pollution when burned, but it still may be a significant contributor to global warming pollution after all because we must take into account what happens during extraction, too. “Scientists are once again reporting alarmingly high methane emissions from an oil and gas field, underscoring questions about the environmental benefits of the boom in natural-gas production that is transforming the US energy system,” writes Jeff Tollefson for Nature. He explains:

The researchers, who hold joint appointments with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Colorado in Boulder, first sparked concern in February 2012 with a study suggesting that up to 4% of the methane produced at a field near Denver was escaping into the atmosphere. If methane — a potent greenhouse gas — is leaking from fields across the country at similar rates, it could be offsetting much of the climate benefit of the ongoing shift from coal- to gas-fired plants for electricity generation.

Industry officials and some scientists contested the claim, but at an American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting in San Francisco, California, last month, the research team reported new Colorado data that support the earlier work, as well as preliminary results from a field study in the Uinta Basin of Utah suggesting even higher rates of methane leakage — an eye-popping 9% of the total production. That figure is nearly double the cumulative loss rates estimated from industry data — which are already higher in Utah than in Colorado.

When it comes to climate change, leaking methane is a big deal. The EPA reports, “Pound for pound, the comparative impact of CH4 [methane] on climate change is over 20 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year period. 

2. Water Pollution

Methane released during fracking doesn’t just end up in the air, but also in the water. By now you’ve likely already seen the videos of people living near gas drilling operations who can light their water on fire as it comes out of the tap. (If you haven’t then it’s time to see “ Gasland.”) In 2011 the United States Geological Survey released a report about water in Pavillion, Wyoming where residents complained about water quality after drilling. Here’s what they found

EPA’s analysis of samples taken from the Agency’s deep monitoring wells in the aquifer indicates detection of synthetic chemicals, like glycols and alcohols consistent with gas production and hydraulic fracturing fluids, benzene concentrations well above Safe Drinking Water Act standards and high methane levels. Given the area’s complex geology and the proximity of drinking water wells to ground water contamination, EPA is concerned about the movement of contaminants within the aquifer and the safety of drinking water wells over time.

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