Natural Gas: Not as clean as you think

Much ink has been spilled regarding the clean properties of natural gas, such as this recent ad by America’s Natural Gas Alliance. Advocates of increased natural gas development love to say that it is cleaner than coal, abundant, and a so-called “bridge fuel” in the transition to renewable energy.

 But how clean is natural gas, really?

The Wilderness Society just released the new science and policy brief Doing it Right: Ensuring Responsible Natural Gas Development on Our Public Lands to address the question: How clean is natural gas? 

Unfortunately, as the brief reveals, natural gas is not the panacea that its promoters would have us believe. Consider these facts:

  • Natural gas is only 30 to 50 percent cleaner burning than coal.
  • Natural gas is still a fossil fuel and our current use of it contributes about 20 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
  • The processing, infrastructure, and burning of natural gas releases methane, a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of its heat-trapping ability.
  • Methane emissions from natural gas infrastructure are the third largest source of methane emissions in the United States, according to a September 2009 study by the Congressional Research Service.
  • Smog, or ground level ozone, has risen tremendously in areas with high levels of natural gas development. For example, in Sublette County, Wyo., after more than 3,100 gas wells were drilled in the past 10 years, ground-level ozone levels increased from background levels to those exceeding the Los Angeles basin in the winter of 2008.

Impacts on wildlife and habitats

Jonah Field natural gas wells in Wyoming. Photo by Peter Aengst and Lighthawk.The impacts that natural gas drilling has on wildlife and habitats should also not be considered “clean.” As can be seen in the photo of the Jonah Natural Gas Field on BLM lands in Wyoming, natural gas development is characterized by a complex network of roads, well pads, pipelines, waste pits, and other disturbances to the natural landscape. Much research exists documenting the cumulative impacts that this development can have on lands and wildlife. For example, habitat fragmentation from oil and gas development affects the feeding, courtship, and migration of species, as their distributions are manipulated and interrupted. Fragmentation of landscapes can also assist the spread of invasive species and diseases, and cause sediment to wash into streams. The impacts can be long-lasting — a typical natural gas field in West has an estimated lifespan of 30-50 years.

Impacts on drinking water

Waste pit on hydraulic fracturing site. Photo by TXsharon, Photobucket.To add to the list of facts that natural gas advocates aren’t so keen to discuss, is the impact on ground and surface water quality. One type of natural gas drilling called hydraulic fracturing has been cited in numerous spills of processing chemicals into ground and other water sources of local communities, including a recent incident in Pennsylvania where a production site spilled 8,000 gallons of dangerous chemicals, contaminated a spring and killing fish.

Unfortunately, hydraulic fracturing is exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Natural gas development uses tremendous amounts of water--the Susquehanna River Basin Commission estimates that 4 to 7 million gallons of water are used for every production well in the Marcellus shale.

Natural gas the right way

So what’s to be done? Because natural gas is and will be an important part of our energy mix for a long time to come, it is more critical than ever to make sure that it is done right. “Doing It Right” means:

  • Keeping wild landscapes and sensitive sites off-limits to leasing and development.
  • Protecting wildlife habitats and populations from the impacts of natural gas activities.
  • Closing loopholes in federal laws that protect drinking water and surface water quality from drilling activities.
  • Minimizing emissions, fugitive methane and other pollutants associated with natural gas activities.
  • Honoring the rights of surface owners to protect their property in split estate situations.
  • Providing sufficient agency staff for field monitoring and inspection.
  • Implementing phased leasing so to minimize the socioeconomic and environmental impacts.

Because of the natural gas industry's huge impact on public lands and communities around the country, the Wilderness Society is promoting the above policies on the federal, state, and local levels. As we work toward a sustainable energy future that appropriately emphasizes renewable energy sources and increased efficiency, it is critical that the health and safety of people and environments are protected from natural gas drilling and its associated activities.

Jonah Field natural gas wells in Wyoming. Photo by Peter Aengst and Lighthawk.
Waste pit on hydraulic fracturing site. Photo by TXsharon, Photobucket.