The fracking gas war

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To be fair, good things come from the fracking boom like jobs drilling wells, new industrial plants, and the hope America may be energy independent one day. But Sherry Vargson is not enthusiastic. Chesapeake Energy fracked her Pennsylvania farm and now her tapwater fizzes with twice the methane that could cause an explosion. Chesapeake gives her bottled water, though that might end soon since gas production on her farm dropped dramatically and her monthly royalty checks have fallen from $1000 to $100. If that’s just natural, as Chesapeake says, let’s examine some other facts.

Energy companies get methane by drilling horizontally for a mile or more into deep shale and injecting chemicals, sand, and millions of gallons of water. That fractures the rock and releases gas, hence the name, “fracking.” One problem with this process is that fracking chemicals can enter drinking water wells. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and xylenes are already in the gas deposits and may also be in fracking chemicals.  VOCs create ozone and cause headaches, loss of coordination, liver and kidney damage, respiratory and immune system damage, adrenal and pituitary tumors, and joint pain -- symptoms many have who live near gas wells in states like Colorado, Wyoming, and Pennsylvania.

Then there is leakage. Professor Robert Howarth of Cornell was first to study the impact of fracking on climate change. His team found leaks from fracking release between 3.6 percent and 7.9 percent of extracted methane directly into the atmosphere, with a greenhouse gas footprint up to twice that of coal. Scientists and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) differ about amounts of “fugitive methane” leaking from drilling rigs, wells, compressors, storage tanks, pipelines, and distribution systems, but there is no doubt it is happening, and sometimes on a grand scale. A University of Colorado survey of Utah’s Uinta Basin showed 9 percent of total production was leaking!

Fugitive methane is a reason to be skeptical of commercials and bureaucrats who extol natural gas. Burning natural gas does result in half the CO2 from burning coal, but that’s just half the story. Besides end uses, calculations of a fuel’s environmental and health impact must also include the extraction process. What we now know about fugitive methane means we must closely question the alleged environmental benefits of switching from coal to natural gas for electrical power plants.

There are more facts, like: the truckload of fracking shale cuttings that set off radiation alarms at a Pennsylvania landfill because of radium content; France has completely banned fracking and New York state has suspended it; the Aspen Environmental Group calculates costs of switching all coal-fired power plants to gas exceed $700 billion; and that while estimates of gas reserves have recently been sharply lowered, the U.S. has enough coal to last 241 years.

Despite all this, the EPA continues its campaign to switch all power plants to gas by simply moving the goal posts each time a “clean coal” innovation puts coal-fired plants in compliance with existing regulations. The relentless campaign caused Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia to say the EPA is waging “a war on coal.” A skirmish in that war was just fought in the Senate.

Gina McCarthy, president Obama’s nominee to head the EPA, appeared before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works earlier this month. Unfortunately, more time was spent on email, refrigerants and global warming than on gas and coal regulations. When they finally got around to regulatory issues, the senators failed to ask McCarthy, as EPA’s future administrator, if she would restrict emissions from existing coal-fired power plants to force them to use natural gas -- or set emissions targets so low as to kill plans for any future clean coal power plants.

No date was set for a vote on the nomination. There is still time to ask Gina McCarthy if she will end her fracking gas war on coal.

Nagle was a director of Black Bear Energy Corporation, a company that designed gas-fired power plants in Vermont, and was a consultant to Fuel Tech, NV, a leader in clean coal technology.