Cleaning up natural gas: Our recommendations for safer policies

A haze surrounds a home near a natural gas site outside of Pavilion, Wyoming. Photo by John Fenton.

They say it’s cleaner than coal, but don’t let that fool you. Natural gas has a lot of scrubbing up to do before it can be considered a genuine part of our clean energy future.

That’s why we’re advocating for polices that will help regulate the development of this fuel which has major adverse impacts on water, air, land protection, and human safety.

Exactly what these policies should be is the subject of our new science and policy brief, “Not At Any Cost: Government policies to make natural gas drilling safer for people and the environment.”

Because natural gas will be a large part of our energy future and the transition to a green economy, it is imperative that local, state, and federal governments put policies in place to make sure it is done safely.

Unfortunately, natural gas companies are exempt from some key federal environmental laws, and have benefitted from relatively weak safety and environmental regulations.

Our brief outlines ways in which the regulation of natural gas development has been woefully inadequate and must be improved, especially with regard to air, water, and land protection. For example:

  • Burning, transporting, and processing of natural gas contributes to carbon dioxide and methane emissions.
    • We recommend that companies be required to prevent or capture “fugitive” air pollutants using the best available technology.
  • To extract natural gas, drilling companies have ramped up hydraulic fracturing in wells throughout the country. The process shoots pressurized water, sand, and chemicals into the ground and has been linked to serious contamination of water sources as well as public health problems in communities near well sites. In most states, operators that employ hydraulic fracturing are not required to disclose the often toxic chemicals that they inject underground, and Congress actually exempted hydraulic fracturing from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act in 2005.
    • We recommend that Congress repeal this exemption and that operators be required to conduct ground and surface water surveys before drilling begins.
  • Additionally, because natural gas development can have major impacts on lands and wildlife habitats, phased development, landscape-level planning and directional drilling should be required.

Waste pit on hydraulic fracturing site. Photo by TXsharon, Photobucket.Establishing protective requirements for air and water quality and minimizing impacts on the landscape are even more important because natural gas companies have a history of violating existing environmental and safety laws. In fact, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection issued 1,435 violations to natural gas companies in only two and a half years, and 952 of those were identified as likely to harm the environment.

We can and must learn lessons from the recent BP oil spill in the Gulf — that without strong regulation and oversight, drilling for fossil fuels like natural gas can be deadly and destructive. The message that local, state, and federal governments need to hear is that the nation wants laws and policies that help us take steps to ensure that natural gas is actually a “clean” fossil fuel.

A haze surrounds a home near a natural gas site outside of Pavilion, Wyoming. Photo by John Fenton.
Waste pit on hydraulic fracturing site. Photo by TXsharon, Photobucket.