Wednesday, March 24, 2010

EPA to throw cold water on natural-gas industry pollution

EPA To Throw Cold Water on Natural Gas Industry

Ever since a documentary filmmaker's drinking watercaught fire as a result of contamination from a nearby natural gas extraction operation — in which millions of gallons of water, sand and top-secret chemicals are injected deep into deposits of shale to free the natural gas trapped within — the industry behind this innovation has had a PR problem.
And well it should: While the industry loves to cite a 2004 study conducted by the EPA that declared hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking" for short, safe for drinking water supplies, the EPA now says that study was wholly inadequate to address the orgy of fracking now occurring in the United States. Fracking involves pumping water and chemicals deep into the earth — and potentially into watersheds — to force natural gas to flow into shafts to be excavated. The EPA has announced that it will conduct a new study to re-evaluate the safety of the practice. But you can imagine how that's going over in an industry that has literally exploded in the past ten years, spewing so much natural gas into U.S. supplies that it has, all by itself, chopped the price of natural gas in half.
But if you thought the debate over the health care bill was dirty, you haven't begun to conceive of the fights between water, energy and the environment that will play out in the 21st century, as supplies of conventional oil dwindle and reserves of conventional natural gas (Canada is currently our largest supplier) continue to shrink. Fracking has the potential to become the U.S.'s tar sands.
Aside from the fact that exploiting remote stores of natural gas means a whole new reserve of carbon for us to send into the atmosphere, there are other parallels with the climate policy debate: Waxman and Markey are involved, and fracking has friends on the Hill, just like countless other carbon-intensive, fossil fuel-centric industries.
The bottom line is that as oil becomes scarce, and funding for our domestic renewable energy industry continues to languish for lack of a strong and consistent signal from Washington, the U.S. is left with a lousy choice: burn more coal or burn more natural gas. Fracking gets us more of the latter, which is easier on the climate, BTU for BTU, but could destroy our dwindling supplies of fresh water in the process. The debate is already getting personal for citizens of America's most populous city: New York's water comes from natural reservoirs within protected watersheds, upstate, which is precisely where oil and gas companies propose to launch yet another bacchanal of fracking.
The gas isn't going away, and neither is our need for cheap energy. Whether that will beat out our desire to have uncontaminated wells is precisely what the upcoming EPA study is designed to address. Yet, if things play out as they have in the climate arena, the science will matter only to the defenders of the environment, while industry and its cronies act to preserve their own short-term interests.
Photo credit: Todbaker
Tlaspycbrvjulpn-30x30-croppedChristopher Mims is a Florida-based journalist whose work has appeared in Scientific American, Wired, Popular Science, Technology Review, Discover magazine and others.

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