The Dirty Truth About Natural Gas and Energy Innovation

Friday, 04 February 2011 11:59 By Sarah Laskow, The Media Consortium | News Analysis | name.

The argument against natural gas got a boost this week, when a congressional investigation turned up evidence that oil and gas companies were using diesel gas to extract gas from the ground.

Natural gas companies have insisted that their newly popular hydraulic fracturing (known as "fracking") techniques are safe, but as Care2's Kristina Chew reports, "environmentalists and regulators have become increasingly concerned that the fracking chemicals—including toluene, xylene and benzene, a carcinogen, which are all from diesel gas---are seeping out into underground sources of drinking water, in violation of the Safe Water Drinking Act."

The Mix-Up

The Environmental Protection Agency is conducting an inquiry into the environmental impacts of fracking, and some states are considering more stringent regulations of the practice, including disclosure of the chemicals that go into fracking fluid. Gas companies have argued that the blend of chemicals is a trade secret and must be kept private, but the findings of the congressional investigation suggest otherwise. Eartha Jane Melzer reports at The Michigan Messenger, "In a letter to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson... Reps. Henry Waxman, Edward Markey and Diana DeGette reported that although the EPA requires permits for hydraulic fracturing that involves diesel none of the companies that admitted using diesel have sought or received permits."

And, as Melzer reports, diesel is the only chemical used in fracking that's currently regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act. That companies have been sneaking it into the ground does not strengthen the industry's case for independence.

Ensuring that natural gas companies do their work without threatening water supplies is becoming ever more crucial, as the fuel becomes one of the go-to replacements for coal. In Massachusetts, for instance, some legislators are pushing for a coal plant in Holyoke to start using natural gas or renewable energy, rather than being shut down, as Nikki Gloudeman reports at Change.org.

Supporting Renewables

And although renewables are thrown in there as an option, right now the clearest way to replace the amount of energy generated by coal is natural gas. This year's line on energy policy from Washington, however, is that the country should support innovations in clean energy.

Will Obama's new direction on this issue go anywhere? Grist's David Roberts has been arguing that any energy policy that leaves out climate change is missing the point.

However, Teryn Norris and Daniel Goldfarb (also at Grist), of Americans for Energy Leadership, a California-based non-profit, have a smart rebuttal. They argue that clean energy needs the boost in research and development that Obama is promising. Ultimately, they, write, "these investments will drive down the price of low-carbon energy and pave the way for stronger deployment efforts — perhaps even including a strong carbon price at some point — both here and in the developing world, where the vast majority of future emissions will originate."

But, About Climate Change!

And to be fair, the federal government is trying to lead the way on investing in renewables. As Beth Buczynski reports at Care2, the Department of Energy is working on a $2.3 million solar energy project that would power its Germantown, Md., location.

Not every one is willing to wait for investments to take hold, however. On the National Radio Project's show, "Making Contact", Andrew Stelzer examines what climate activists are doing, post-Cancun, to push forward debates on climate change. Ananda Lee Tan, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alterantives argues, for instance, "Community-led climate justice in the U.S. has been winning. The largest amount of industrial carbon that has been prevented in this country has been prevented by community-led groups, grassroots groups fighting coal, oil and incinerators."

Cause and Effect

Whether the solution comes from industry, government, or grassroots groups, the country's energy policy will change over the next few decades. And what's troubling is that it's not clear what the impact will be. Take natural gas: Washington favors it right now because it's thought to have lower carbon emission than coal. But any time humans introduce new factors into the environment, they can have unexpected consequences.

That's not only true for the energy industry, too. In Texas, for instance, the government is trying to eradicate an invasive plant species, a type of giant cane called Arundo that is growing all over the Rio Grande Valley. As Saul Elbein reports for The Texas Observer, it's been hard to eradicate:

There are three primary ways to control invasive plant species: Kill them with herbicides, clear them with bulldozers and machetes, or attempt to introduce a new predator. The least controversial approach, clearing the cane, is not going to work. There are thousands of square miles of the stuff, and Arundo cane is nearly impossible to cut out. Each stalk has a thick taproot that sends shoots in every direction. You can bulldoze or chop the cane down, and it will grow right back. Worse, any stress on the plant—say a machete blow—causes it to send out more root stalks. Every chopped-up joint of cane that floats downstream can sprout another stand.

But, Elbein reports, scientists have come up with a different solution: They've bred wasps that originate in the same region as the cane to come in and eat it. They've also taken precautions that the wasps won't have their own adverse impact on the environment by ensuring that they can only survive on this particular type of plant. But even then, it's a tricky business.

“The wasps have to survive,” John Adamczyk, an entomologist running the project, told Elbein. “They have to not all get eaten. Then it becomes a question of whether they can keep the cane in check.”

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Last modified on Friday, 04 February 2011 11:59