Earthly Idea: Fracking and natural gas a dangerous addiction
Pro-fracking ads on TV now rival in frequency the ones for expensive pharmaceuticals we’ll never need. My gut reaction is that anyone who needs to advertise that heavily — or can afford to — must be ripping us off royally somehow. So, though fracking and natural gas drilling are not Summit County issues, per se, they are highly important for Colorado and the country. Even if political maneuvering will keep them off the ballot this year, we need to learn as much as we can about them.
Starting with natural gas: As fossil fuels go, it’s a superhero. Natural gas burns far cleaner than coal or oil. Also far more efficient, it generates much less carbon dioxide per amount of energy. Transported easily by pipeline, it is perfect for home heating and cooking. And it is ideal for meeting peak power demand, a key need for electric utilities. Unlike coal and nuclear power plants or wind and solar power, gas turbines can easily be turned on and off to match demand.
But natural gas is still a fossil fuel. It does generate both toxic pollutants and greenhouse gas. And it is a finite resource. Once used up, it takes geologic time to get more. Its supply and cost have varied widely over the years. Your political choice of classic imperfections in the market or too much government regulation. Either way, it’s been a wild ride. Sometimes we were told that the supply was endless; other times that we would run out of gas any day.
Enter hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the injection of water and chemicals into geologic formations to increase production from oil and gas wells. Because of fracking, natural gas prices have been lower and production higher for the last five or six years than they have been since the early 1970s. Together with pressure to reduce toxic and greenhouse gas emissions, this has led to substantial migration of electrical generation to natural gas.
Natural gas now dominates new power plant construction. Some is for peaking, but much is for base load, including conversion of coal plants to gas. Great for air quality and greenhouse-gas emissions — in the short term.
But is this a dangerous trend for the long term? If we increasingly rely on natural gas use to reduce toxic and greenhouse emissions, will it reduce incentive for energy conservation and renewable energy? Will it set up a new crisis for the future? Use of fracking has dramatically increased estimates of gas reserves, but fracking or no fracking, natural gas is a finite supply fossil fuel. It will be scarce again and at some point, forever. I am inclined to steward it carefully for home heating, peaking power and other priority uses. Use inexhaustible wind and solar energy for base-load electrical generation.
As for fracking itself, the reluctance of the industry to disclose the chemicals being used continues to be a bright red flag. (Benzene, lead, methanol, and dozens of other carcinogenic or regulated water or air pollutants have been disclosed.)
Particularly here in the arid West, the huge quantities of water used are also a critical factor to be reckoned with. Of most concern, however, may be the reassurances that instances of water-supply contamination have been from isolated screwups, because fracking fluids are injected far deeper than local wells. If gas formations are deep underground, though, so are major aquifers. If they are contaminated by a deep screwup, the consequences will also run very deep.
Howard Brown lives near Silverthorne. While he has extensive environmental policy analysis experience at the federal, state and local levels, he attributes his expertise to observing and asking questions while enjoying Summit County’s beauty.
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