The Risks and Rewards of Natural Gas

 

Let’s begin this post with details from a chart compiled by the Natural Gas Supply Association. The single page can be accessed from the following link: Natural Gas/Cleanest Burning Fossil Fuel. At first this may appear to be a red flag and construed as a promotional piece for the natural gas industry. However, it does contain some useful details to “fuel” this discussion.

  1. The level of emissions varies significantly for different fuels. As widely understood, non-combustion renewables, such as hydro, solar and wind, as well as nuclear emit no key air pollutants in the conversion of fuel to electricity.
  2. Natural gas is the cleanest of all fossil fuels and has been credited by the EPA for helping meet the nation’s first goal for air quality improvement standards. For example, sulfur dioxide is a key component in acid rain, but natural gas has virtually no SO2 (sulfur dioxide), which is part of the reason many utilities have increasingly chosen to build clean natural gas-fired plants to create electricity.
  3. Natural gas emits the least pollution of all fossil fuels, making it an attractive source for electricity generation.

Notice the focus of these points (and the entire comparison) is to look only at the emissions side of the equation!

There is no question that emissions are very important and contribute greatly to air quality and, more controversially, anthropogenic climate change. What this chart neglects to provide is a look at the production side of this equation and one that has startling consequences.

As countries evaluate energy, there are many factors to be considered such as decisions to retrofit legacy plants with technology to “scrub” dirty fuel plants versus build to replace with new technology. Often these considerations are driven by cost which in turn are driven by profit.

Nuclear advocates have a strong story until the issue of waste disposal and environmental safety weighed against plant integrity is introduced.

In that same context, it is important to look at the production side of natural gas.

There is an enormous push to access natural gas supplies that exist in coal shale. The following link provides a very nice overview of the issues around this process. For example, the geo-politics of oil are well-understood. As demand AND prices rise, the transfer of wealth is equally enormous. In spite of the economic and political dangers of such wealth transfer, there seems to be little reduction in global consumption (addiction) to fossil fuel – irrespective of environmental consequences.

From the article entitled: Shale Gas Booming Globally, Despite Chemical Dangers – there are some very serious red flags to better understand.

  1. Energy industry analysts are predicting a global shale gas boom that could turn the cleaner-burning fossil fuel into the oil supply of the coming century. They are watching the gas industry undergo a global transformation that is starting to reshape the geopolitics of energy supply all over the world.
  2. Although cleaner-burning than coal, shale gas still poses a severe threat to environmental security. The drilling method that frees the gas requires the use of a cocktail of toxic chemicals that many fear could contaminate underground sources of drinking water that supply millions of people.

The drilling process used to obtain shale gas is called fracking. “Fracking entails injecting water and a cocktail of chemicals into the gas-bearing shale at high force to bust open the rock. Along with the gas that’s extracted, the franking fluid is pulled out of wells and then dumped into lined pits above ground, where producers are responsible for treating and managing it. In some cases that water has contaminated soil and groundwater. Poorly lined wells have also resulted, in some areas, in natural gas and fracking chemicals getting into water supplies.”

This brings us back to the question of understanding the issues around the global demand for energy and the potentially greater hidden threat to an even more “endangered” human resource – aquifers. These have formed over millions of years but are being rapidly depleted worldwide as irrigation from wells supplements changing rainfall patterns.

Today, aquifers are our purest from of available freshwater. It is unclear how long this will last into the future.

 

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