More Hot Air About Natural Gas

As has been widely documented, the introduction and expansion of fracking (hydraulic fracturing) as a method of natural gas extraction is a hotly contested topic across the United States. Recently, a proposed storage facility in Upstate New York experienced significant resistance from locals. This opposition postulates that the natural gas storage facility near Lake Seneca will put the region’s recreational and agricultural industries in substantial risk. Furthermore opponents suggest that public safety would also be put at great risk, referring to natural gas leakage and explosions in Kansas in 2001, as well as studies showing that the chemicals injected into the ground to displace the gas can tarnish water quality.

In addition to regional concerns over safety and quality of life, there have also been rumblings in the scientific community regarding the true sustainability of natural gas as a “bridge fuel”. At the beginning of the gas boom, much of the marketing appeal came from the fact that natural gas, when burned, emits a fraction of the greenhouse gases that coal does. However, researchers are now looking upstream of the actual combustion processes, and fear that natural gas has essentially the same environmental impact as coal due to leakage and higher emissions early in the extraction and production lifecycle.

This news comes at an interesting time for ExxonMobil, as the energy giant recently released a report claiming that natural gas soundly defeats coal on a lifecycle emissions basis. The Exxon report is difficult to assess, primarily because it compares a single gas drilling field to the entire United States coal industry. Due to the low sample size, the general assumption that gas leakage varies from site to site, and Exxon’s vested interest in seeing the gas continue its recent dominance over coal, it stands to reason that the Exxon results deserve some skepticism. This is duly confirmed by a recent Harvard study which reflects that fracking transparency initiatives such as FracFocus.org appear to be falling well short of their intended purpose, and often contain incorrect, late, or completely missing disclosures of fracking field operations.

Ultimately, the debate over fossil fuels and fracking will continue to rage until a clear winner can be crowned, or renewable technologies become widely accepted and available. For the time being however, it appears that natural gas and fracking will remain in the core of the public debate until the new methods can be effectively accounted for and understood.