Sustainable Transport Club
Natural gas used in a CNG vehicle costs less than $2.00 per gallon equivalent. It produces much lower emissions than gasoline or diesel. It can help us develop a renewable carbon neutral fuel through biogas processes. The cost of producing biogas fuel is very close to the cost of fossil sources for natural gas. The cost difference is closer than the cost gap between any other fossil fuel and a sustainable alternative fuel.
It is a fuel that is readily available in our country as a domestically produced fuel. There is enough to last from 50 to a hundred years or more depending on who you talk to. It also depends on how we use it. At the very least it will help stop the petro dollar drain and stabilize our economy.
That is the good part.
The bad part is that it is a fossil fuel that adds greenhouse gasses to the environment. It releases both carbon dioxides and carbon monoxides when it is burned even though the amount per mile is notably less than for gasoline or diesel.
Natural gas is basically methane. When natural gas is extracted, transported or transferred from one container to another there is usually a release of the gas into the atmosphere. That release adds up through the whole use cycle to a sizable amount.
Methane gas has 72 times the greenhouse gas effect of carbon dioxide when it first releases into the atmosphere. It does break back down into carbon dioxide over time but over one hundred years it will have 25 times the greenhouse effect of the same amount of CO2.
Producing natural gas turns out to use a lot of water. The use of water is increasing and competing with food production and household needs. It is not clear if that water cost is being charged to the drilling operation at fair market prices or at subsidized prices.
That is the bad part.
The balance between these two can justify using it but doing so in a responsible way. It suggests that we could consider lots of ways to improve the natural gas situation and still do very well. One way is to encourage development of cellulosic digesters to produce carbon neutral biogas. A small tax on fossil gas would bring the cost very close to biogas and could be used to subsidize the development of biogas digester plants. That would be a clearly advantageous move.
But then there is the ugly part.
The ugly part is that it is being extracted in a way that could be really ugly or just a little ugly or even beautiful. Beauty being in the eye of the beholder, so itís opposite must be, that of being ugly.
This is referring to the practice of shattering the rock that has natural gas in it and using chemicals to release the gas. Everyone knows this as fracking.
The natural gas people are indifferent about the chemicals involved and the concern of destabilizing the bed rock it is used in. They say that they have been doing it for years so what is the big deal. It is being done hundreds and thousands of feet down so it does not matter what chemicals are being used. There are many who think it is a beautiful way to supply the energy we need.
There are also people who think this is the worst environmental disaster for decades and that talk about earthquakes and flames coming out of the ground. They talk about drinking water that you can light on fire because of the natural gas released into the ground water. The reasoning follows that if the natural gas is in the water so must the chemicals used to release it. That all sounds pretty ugly.
These ugly experiences are all attributed to fracking. That sounds reasonable because fracking has been increased in those areas and people are just now finding out about it so it must be new. IF something new is happening then it must be causing any new problem that is going on at the same time.
So what is the truth of this emotional mix of things?
First of all it is true that fracking has been used a long time. What is new is that it is being used in conjunction with new drilling practices. The new drilling practices allow one well to access larger areas of a gas field by drilling laterally. In this way one well can frack a large area from one central location.
This has made the process more practical and less costly. That translates into being more profitable so it is being done much more than it has been. There has been a very rapid deployment of this new combination of practices and the price of natural gas has gone to what looks like an all-time low.
The other thing that is true is that we do not know enough about what is happening to know how ugly or beautiful it might actually be. The industry is blind siding scientific evaluation of the practice. We need to evaluate what is actually happening using sound scientific research and analysis. That requires access to the information and time to study what is happening.
A recent article in the Ventura County Star states: It is hard to believe a practice injecting tons of water typically laced with a complex mix of toxic chemicals into wells is not being monitored by the state of California, despite the potential risks to our water supply.
Senator Fran Pavley sees all of this very clearly and is proposing some very practical and real steps to get the information we need. The Ventura County Star covers her very clear thinking views.
The rapid increase in this practice is a very real cause for concern. Until we have a clear and complete scientific understanding of what is involved we do not know how bad it is. While we do not know how ugly this really is there is a very good chance that it does pose some very real problems. Doing a little here and a little there may not be a big deal. But doing a lot of it all over the country could very well be a real concern.
We do not know a number of things about the consequences are of fracking. These include:
* What are the consequences of pumping a large amount of surface water down into great depths?
* How does that affect the hydrologic cycle on the surface and in the atmosphere?
* How much water is being diverted from other uses and how much is being paid?
* What chemicals are being used and how toxic are they?
* Is the chemically treated water staying where it is being put or is it moving into aquifers that supply wells?
* Are the chemicals staying where they are being put or are they moving on their own like the gasoline additives did in California.
* Is the chemical processing being handled effectively on the surface or do we need regulated procedures to keep it from entering ground water or surface runoff?
* What are the geologic consequences of fracturing rock at various depths?
* What are the geologic consequences of lubricating fractured rock at various depths and or in proximity to earthquake faults?
This is a short list that gives you a good idea of the level of study we need to undertake. There are many more questions to be addressed before we know what the actual situation might be.
The main point is that this technology has the potential to create great harm and we do not know the extent to which that is true. How can we allow this to proliferate rapidly into every corner of our country without knowing the consequences?
One thing we can do is encourage informed scientific debate and research while slowing the deployment to a reasonable pace. Supporting Senator Pavley and all the similar minded representatives might be a good step in that direction.
This article was written by Russell Sydney.
Sustainable Transport Club, 268 W Santa Barbara St, Santa Paula, CA 93060
Copyright Speakers Press September 2012.† All rights reserved.
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