Natural Gas: A Bridge to Nowhere

Natural gas is nothing but a bridge to more natural gas – and with it more water contamination, air pollution, global warming, and fractured communities

As program director at Rainforest Action Network, Jennifer Krill helped lead campaigns to protect old growth forests and break America’s oil addiction. She is currently the executive director of EARTHWORKS, an advocacy group that focuses on the negative impacts of mineral and energy extraction.

“Natural gas: the bridge to a clean energy future!” Nice sound bite. But the reality is that natural gas is nothing but a bridge to more natural gas – and with it more water contamination, air pollution, global warming, and fractured communities.

The natural gas industry, joined in good faith by some environmentalists, touts natural gas as a “bridge fuel,” cleaner burning than coal and less destructive to extract, a way to transition to a renewable energy economy. But communities across America – from the Rocky Mountains to Texas, Pennsylvania, and New York – know this is a false choice. Just like coal, the drilling, processing, and transport of natural gas is dirty and dangerous. And new research calls into question natural gas’s advantage over coal in terms of global warming pollution when the full life cycle (from extraction to transport to use) is considered.

image of a smokestackcourtesy EARTHWORKSLarge volumes of methane are released during
natural gas drilling and production.

Due to advances in “hydraulic fracturing” (commonly known as “fracking”), America’s gas fields are no longer “somewhere else”: They’re right next door. Chances are good they’re right upstream from you.

And thanks in part to fluids used in fracking, America’s water is being poisoned with dozens of toxic drilling chemicals including benzene and toluene. Residents are being forced from their homes by air emissions, which are neither measured nor mitigated in any consistent fashion. Gas wells are surrounding peoples’ homes, with drill rigs within 150 feet of residences in some areas. In many cases, drilling is moving forward without the consent of the landowners and communities that are directly affected.

If the natural gas industry wants to be “clean,” it should embrace policies that mean no pollution of groundwater, drinking water, or surface waters; stringent controls on air pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions; protection for no-go zones, like drinking watersheds and sacred and wild lands; and respect for landowner rights, including the right to say no to drilling on their property.

But the natural gas industry resists such proposals. This makes no sense: With better planning and smarter use of technology, the natural gas industry could avoid many of these impacts and cure a major public relations headache as well.

Across the nation, local and state agencies, from first responders and road builders to regulators, are struggling to protect the public – to keep up with natural gas-related accidents, heavy truck use, and monitoring and oversight. All the while, industry resists federal regulation, saying it prefers a state-by-state patchwork of rules … even as it fights every state effort to improve its practices and every municipality that tries to protect itself.

In addition to local environmental and public health concerns, there are also global consequences to increasing our reliance on natural gas. Both carbon dioxide and methane are major causes of global warming. While the burning of natural gas releases less carbon dioxide than coal, large volumes of methane are released during natural gas drilling and production, and through leaky pipelines. This is a problem because methane, the major constituent of natural gas, is 20 to 30 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. With an estimated 600,000 gas wells across America, the climate impacts are enormous.

Independent testing of emissions from natural gas facilities reveals extraordinary releases of methane. But there is no systematic monitoring or collection of this information. Without such data, we have no idea how much we are putting our climate at risk by advocating natural gas as a bridge fuel.

Those who promote natural gas as a solution to climate change must embrace a commitment to monitor and eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from every stage of the natural gas development process. Many natural gas advocates point out that emissions in the gas fields may be much easier to clean up than emissions from coal-fired power plants. We invite them to join us in the urgent fight to curb emissions in the field and to push for stronger regulation and monitoring of emissions at all stages of gas development.

Environmentalists and social justice advocates are rising up in record numbers to stop coal. At the same time, the twenty-first-century clean energy revolution – solar and wind power and energy efficiency – is gathering pace. What lies in between? Is replacing coal with natural gas going to “bridge” us to clean energy?

The answer is “no.” Every dollar spent on new natural gas wells, pipelines, processing and infrastructure does not bring us closer to wind, solar, and energy efficiency. Quite the opposite: It is taking us in the wrong direction by delaying the transition. The large-scale conversion to clean energy demands new thinking, new consumption patterns, new delivery mechanisms, new industries, new financial incentives. Burning more natural gas simply puts energy from a different source into the same system now used for coal. To stabilize the climate at 350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, we simply can’t afford to invest in any new infrastructure that continues to increase greenhouse gases. A natural gas burning power plant that operates for the next 50 years means five more decades of burning fossil fuel that could instead be capturing energy from efficiency, wind, or the sun.

It is true that we are faced with an energy choice. It’s a choice that immediately impacts our communities’ air and water as well as the stability of Earth’s climate. But it’s not a choice between coal and natural gas. We are facing a choice between a truly clean energy future or more of the same. As currently pursued, natural gas is not a short, narrow, clean bridge. It’s bridge to nowhere: one that is long, exacts very high tolls, and has no clear end.

For an opposing view, read what Richard Ward has to say…

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