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Despite Health/Safety Issues, Congress Rushing to Promote Natural Gas

April 25, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

With gasoline prices around $4 a gallon in most parts of the country, the natural gas industry and their allies in Congress are ramping up their efforts to become a viable and mainstream fuel alternative. Rep. John Sullivan [R, OK-1] and 76 original bipartisan co-sponsors recently introduced the “New Alternative Transportation to Give Americans Solution Act” that would provide about $5 billion in federal subsidies for trucking companies, vehicle owners and fueling stations to transition from gasoline and diesel to natural gas. In one weeks time, the bill more than doubled in co-sponsors — it now has 178 — and it appears set to move through the House quickly. But, given the negative environmental impacts of the hydraulic fracking process that would be used to expand natural gas production, is this really the answer to the most recent spike in gasoline prices?

In order to extract natural gas from the shale deposits where huge amounts of it are stored, companies drill deep wells, make a 90-degree turn to face the shale horizontally, and then inject high-pressured fracking fluid (a secret chemical/water mix that was protected from disclosure by Congress in 2005). During the process, methane from the natural gas and chemicals from the fracking fluid leak through the now-fractured shale into surrounding earth and aquifers. The extent of the contamination isn’t known exactly, but there have been incidences of people in the Northeast, near the massive Marcellus shale deposit, being able to light their tap water on fire with a match because the concentration of methane was so high. Here are some examples of that.

Beyond the water contamination issue, there are concerns that the greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas extraction could be significant enough to offset the reductions from burning natural gas instead of oil or coal. A recent Cornell University study found that the greenhouse gas footprint of hydro-fracked natural gas over a 20-year period is at least 20% higher than coal, and possibly as much as 50% higher.

The supporters of the bill say they don’t envision natural gas as a long-term oil alternative. They see it as a “bridge fuel” towards some non-fossil fuel energy source in the future. But is it truly a bridge in the right direction if it puts our most precious natural resources — air and water — at risk of further pollution? There’s no doubt that gasoline prices are a problem in need of a solution, but the speed with which this bill is gaining support in Congress at a moment when energy discussions are more politicized than usual should give us pause.

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