"Clean Gas" More Dangerous Than Coal, Industry Expert Tells TV

Gas fracking wells in operation (Irekia-Eusko Jaurlaritza in blogs.lse.ac.uk)

US “clean gas” wells in operation (Irekia-Eusko Jaurlaritza in blogs.lse.ac.uk)

Turns out that just about everyone (including President Obama) has been hugely underestimating the methane pollution levels of so-called “clean gas.” The booming American economy now seems to come at a greater cost than we originally thought when we found out that natural gas produces only half as much carbon as coal.

A couple of years ago, natural gas produced through expensive hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) sounded like a great way to clear the air and forestall climate change, eh? Not really. Scientists have recently found that drilling-produced methane (up to 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide over time) creates an even thicker blanket in the atmosphere than the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide. In simple terms, it basically creates a tighter greenhouse.

On Monday night, the cable TV series “Years of Living Dangerously” ripped the covers off the idea that the methane produced from fracking wells is inconsequential. America Ferrera (TV’s “Ugly Betty”) spoke about a new study—just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences—that looked into drilling operations at several wells in southwestern Pennsylvania. The researchers found that these wells released methane into the atmosphere at rates that were hundreds of times greater than estimates made by EPA regulators.

In the documentary, Mark Boling, senior vice president of Southwestern Energy (the fifth largest natural gas producer in the United States), admits that the gas industry’s numbers, backed by the Environmental Protection Agency, that show methane leakage at around one percent of the “clean gas” yield do not match the scientific measurements—especially in the Los Angeles Basin, where one study found levels of about 17%.

Boling told a recent Senate committee hearing that the industry has not applied engineering solutions to this methane problem because it would cut into their bottom line:

“I know that [capturing methane through technology] does sound like a no-brainer, so to speak, that if it’s going to make everyone money, why wouldn’t you do it, but that presupposes you’re not in a capital-constrained environment, in terms of the investments being made by industry. And in certain cases [if] they feel like those dollars can go into things that could probably make them more money, they may not necessarily do it.”

Dr. Anthony Ingraffea, one of the study authors, explained to Ferrara’s fellow interviewer Mark Bittman, author, reporter, and columnist for The New York Times, how he and other scientists began to question the conventional thinking about the natural gas boom and methane emissions:

“The industry really wants the American people to believe, they really want the President of the United States to believe, they want all the state regulators and state legislators to believe what they’re saying, which is shale gas is our savior. Merry Christmas, America. It’s going to make us energy-independent, energy-secure. It’s going to keep prices low. It’s going to kill coal. Well, all those things depend upon shale gas being clean. And we questioned that.”

Three years ago, Ingraffea and coauthors Howarth and Santoro estimated that the methane emission rate was not 1%, as producers and EPA generally agreed, but between 3.6 and 7.9% of production, thought by those in the profession to be worse than coal from a climate perspective. Since the initial study three years ago, every single peer-reviewed report from other scientists has measured methane emission rates within or above the 2011 estimate range. In another interview, Gaby Petron, a top government scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, confirmed what Ingraffea was saying.

Ferrara also interviewed David Crane, CEO of NRG, America’s second largest energy generator. She was surprised when Crane told her he’s trying to move away from oil and coal and as quickly as possible. In Texas, his company is already one of the biggest providers of wind power. Ferrara also interviewed a rancher whose herd had to be sold off because of the drought. The rancher had also put in a wind farm. “Wind is my best cash crop in a drought because wind blows even during a drought.” Sam Brownback, the conservative Republican governor of Kansas, is right behind him. Brownback sees wind as providing jobs for rural Kansas as well as truly clean energy.

But “not everyone is happy about all the growth in renewables,” Ferrara says. It even took the White House until March of this year to drop the “clean gas” fantasy and produce a “Climate Action Plan Strategy to Reduce Methane Emissions.”

It’s hard for many of us to believe that the US has some organized groups that have been working very hard to discredit renewable energy. To show the influence of these powerful forces, Ferrara spoke with James Taylor–not the James Taylor, but a senior fellow at the Heartland Institute, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit conservative “think tank” regarded by many as catering antiscience to the highest bidder. (Heartland was the lobbying group that first came to national notice by working with the Philip Morris tobacco company to deny the link between secondhand smoke and cancer. The institute also backed Arizona’s harsh immigration policy and the “Stand Your Ground” deadly force laws passed in many states.)

In the past 15 years, much of Heartland’s income has come from ExxonMobil and billionaires Charles and David Koch, who own Koch Industries, reportedly the second largest privately held company in the US (after Cargill) and major manufacturers, refiners, and distributors of petroleum, transportation fuels, and other petroleum products. They have also worked against universal health care. What Heartland is “really famous for” now, Ferrara says, “is denying manmade climate change.”

Taylor is currently lobbying to repeal renewable energy laws all over the country. He’s working with a quiet, powerful, and very well-funded group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC’s members from the fossil fuel industry have conferred at meetings with literally thousands of state legislators, mostly Republicans, to draft climate change denialist bills and then pressure their states into passing them. In Kansas, they were recently only one vote away from success.

Bittman expressed his recent thoughts about the safety of the nation’s “clean gas” energy system:

“I started thinking about all the places across the country where gas can leak: not just the many thousands of wells, but a pipeline system 1.5 million miles long… with tens of thousands of compressor stations… countless valves… and corroded pipes running under towns and cities everywhere. even under the very city where the future of natural gas will be decided.”

The interviewers gave Taylor the last word:

“I really think I have a strong hand in terms of what I’m advocating in the climate debate and I’m very comfortable in my own skin at that debate just like I am at the poker table.”

Sure hope somebody calls his bluff, for all our sakes.

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