Natural gas as an alternative to coal

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Natural gas is a combustible mixture of hydrocarbon gases. It typically consists of 70-90% methane. Before natural gas can be used as a fuel, it must undergo extensive natural gas processing to remove almost all materials other than methane. The by-products of that processing include ethane, propane, butanes, pentanes and higher molecular weight hydrocarbons, elemental sulfur, carbon dioxide, water vapor and sometimes helium and nitrogen. Natural gas is found associated with fossil fuels, in coal beds, as methane clathrates, in porous sedimentary rock such as shale, and is created by methanogenic organisms in marshes, bogs, and landfills. It is a widely used fuel source, a major feedstock for fertilizers, and a potent greenhouse gas.[1]

There were more than 493,000 active natural-gas wells in the United States in 2009, almost double the number in 1990. Around 90 percent have used fracking to get more gas flowing, according to the drilling industry.[2]

Natural gas is commonly used in coal plant conversion projects because it is seen as a cleaner burning fuel. However, natural gas, while emitting less carbon dioxide emissions than a coal plant, does contribute net carbon into the atmosphere. In 2011, EPA’s released a new greenhouse gas report on natural gas that doubled its previous estimates for the amount of methane gas that leaks from loose pipe fittings and is vented from gas wells.[3]

Natural gas is often informally referred to as simply gas, especially when compared to other energy sources such as oil or coal.

Policy shift

According to the Energy Information Administration, the 1987 repeal of the Power Plant and Industrial Fuel Use Act prohibiting the use of natural gas by new electric generating units led to a large increase in natural gas generating capacity through 2000. Additional factors contributing to this increase were low natural gas prices through the 1990s, the availability of increasingly efficient natural gas technology in the form of advanced combined cycle units, the short construction-to-operation time to build new combined cycle units, and the attractiveness of natural gas as a trace SO2-emitting fuel source.[4]

Sources

Fossil natural gas

In the past, natural gas was almost always a byproduct of producing oil, since the small, light gas carbon chains come out of solution as it undergoes pressure reduction from the reservoir to the surface, similar to uncapping a bottle of soda pop where the carbon dioxide effervesces. Unwanted natural gas can be a disposal problem at the well site. If there is not a market for natural gas near the wellhead it is virtually valueless since it must be piped to the end user. Until recently, such unwanted gas was burned off at the wellsite, but due to environmental concerns this practice is becoming less common. Often, unwanted gas (or 'stranded' gas without a market) is pumped back into the reservoir with an 'injection' well for disposal or repressurizing the producing formation. Another solution is to export the natural gas as a liquid. Gas-to-liquid, (GTL) is a developing technology that converts stranded natural gas into synthetic gasoline or diesel or jet fuel (synfuels) through the Fischer-Tropsch process developed in World War II Germany. Such fuels can be transported through conventional pipelines and tankers to users. Proponents claim GTL fuels burn cleaner than comparable petroleum fuels. Most major international oil companies are in advanced development stages of GTL production, with a world-scale (140,000 bbl/day) GTL plant in Qatar scheduled to come online before 2010. In locations such as the United States with a high natural gas demand, pipelines are constructed to take the gas from the wellsite to the end consumer.

Fossil natural gas can be "associated" (found in oil fields) or "non-associated" (isolated in natural gas fields), and is also found in coal beds (as coalbed methane). It sometimes contains significant quantities of ethane, propane, butane, and pentane—heavier hydrocarbons removed prior to use as a consumer fuel—as well as carbon dioxide, nitrogen, helium and hydrogen sulfide.[5]

Natural gas is commercially produced from oil fields and natural gas fields. Gas produced from oil wells is called casinghead gas or associated gas. The natural gas industry is producing gas from increasingly more challenging resource types: sour gas, tight gas, shale gas and coalbed methane.

The world's largest proven gas reserves are located in Russia. Russia is also the world's largest natural gas producer, through the Gazprom company. Major proven resources (with year of estimate) (in billion cubic metres) are world 175,400 (2006), Russia 47,570 (2006), Iran 26,370 (2006), Qatar 25,790 (2007), Saudi Arabia 6,568 (2006) and United Arab Emirates 5,823 (2006).

The world's largest gas field is Qatar's offshore North Field, estimated to have 25 trillion cubic metres of gas in place—enough to last more than 200 years at optimum production levels. The second largest natural gas field is the South Pars Gas Field in Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf. Connected to Qatar's North Field, it has estimated reserves of 8 to 14 trillion cubic metres of gas.

Because natural gas is not a pure product, when non-associated gas is extracted from a field under supercritical (pressure/temperature) conditions, it may partially condense upon isothermic depressurizing—an effect called retrograde condensation. The liquids thus formed may get trapped by depositing in the pores of the gas reservoir. One method to deal with this problem is to reinject dried gas free of condensate to maintain the underground pressure and to allow reevaporation and extraction of condensates.

Town gas

Town gas is a mixture of methane and other gases, mainly the highly toxic carbon monoxide, that can be used in a similar way to natural gas and can be produced by treating coal chemically. This is a historic technology, still used as 'best solution' in some local circumstances, although coal gasification is not usually economic at current gas prices. However, depending upon infrastructure considerations, it remains a future possibility.

Most town "gashouses" located in the eastern United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were simple by-product coke ovens which heated bituminous coal in air-tight chambers. The gas driven off from the coal was collected and distributed through town-wide networks of pipes to residences and other buildings where it was used for cooking and lighting purposes. (Gas heating did not come into widespread use until the last half of the twentieth century.) The coal tar that collected in the bottoms of the gashouse ovens was often used for roofing and other water-proofing purposes, and also, when mixed with sand and gravel, was used for creating bitumen for the surfacing of local streets.

Biogas

When methane-rich gases are produced by the anaerobic decay of non-fossil organic matter (biomass), these are referred to as biogas (or natural biogas). Sources of biogas include swamps, marshes, and landfills (see landfill gas), as well as sewage sludge and manure[6] by way of anaerobic digesters, in addition to[enteric fermentation particularly in cattle.

Methanogen are responsible for all biological sources of methane, some in symbiotic relationships with other life forms, including termites, ruminants, and cultivated crops. Methane released directly into the atmosphere would be considered a pollutant, however, methane in the atmosphere is oxidised, producing carbon dioxide and water. Methane in the atmosphere has a half life of seven years, meaning that every seven years, half of the methane present is converted to carbon dioxide and water.

Future sources of methane, the principal component of natural gas, include landfill gas, biogas and methane hydrate. Biogas, and especially landfill gas, are already used in some areas, but their use could be greatly expanded. Landfill gas is a type of biogas, but biogas usually refers to gas produced from organic material that has not been mixed with other waste.

Landfill gas is created from the decomposition of waste in landfills. If the gas is not removed, the pressure may get so high that it works its way to the surface, causing damage to the landfill structure, unpleasant odor, vegetation die-off and an explosion hazard. The gas can be vented to the atmosphere, flared or burned to produce electricity or heat. Experimental systems were being proposed for use in parts Hertfordshire, UK and Lyon in France.

Once water vapor is removed, about half of landfill gas is methane. Almost all of the rest is carbon dioxide, but there are also small amounts of nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen. There are usually trace amounts of hydrogen sulfide and siloxanes, but their concentration varies widely. Landfill gas cannot be distributed through natural gas pipelines unless it is cleaned up to the same quality. It is usually more economical to combust the gas on site or within a short distance of the landfill using a dedicated pipeline. Water vapor is often removed, even if the gas is combusted on site. If low temperatures condense water out of the gas, siloxanes can be lowered as well because they tend to condense out with the water vapor. Other non-methane components may also be removed in order to meet emission standards, to prevent fouling of the equipment or for environmental considerations. Co-firing landfill gas with natural gas improves combustion, which lowers emissions.

Biogas is usually produced using agricultural waste materials, such as otherwise unusable parts of plants and manure. Biogas can also be produced by separating organic materials from waste that otherwise goes to landfills. This is more efficient than just capturing the landfill gas it produces. Using materials that would otherwise generate no income, or even cost money to get rid of, improves the profitability and energy balance of biogas production.

Anaerobic lagoons produce biogas from manure, while biogas reactors can be used for manure or plant parts. Like landfill gas, biogas is mostly methane and carbon dioxide, with small amounts of nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen. However, with the exception of pesticides, there are usually lower levels of contaminants.

Hydrates

Huge quantities of natural gas (primarily methane) exist in the form of hydrates under sediment on offshore continental shelves and on land in arctic regions that experience permafrost such as those in Siberia (hydrates require a combination of high pressure and low temperature to form). However, no technology has been developed to produce natural gas economically from hydrates.

Power generation

Natural gas is a major source of electricity generation through the use of gas turbines and steam turbines. Most grid peaking power plants and some off-grid engine-generators use natural gas. Particularly high efficiencies can be achieved through combining gas turbines with a steam turbine in combined cycle mode. Natural gas burns more cleanly than other fossil fuels, such as oil and coal, and produces less carbon dioxide per unit energy released. For an equivalent amount of heat, burning natural gas produces about 30% less carbon dioxide than burning petroleum and about 45% less than burning coal.[7] Combined cycle power generation using natural gas is thus the cleanest source of power available using fossil fuels, and this technology is widely used wherever gas can be obtained at a reasonable cost. Fuel cell technology may eventually provide cleaner options for converting natural gas into electricity, but as yet it is not price-competitive.

It was reported in July 2012 that for the first time ever natural gas power generation in the United States matched the power generated by coal. Coal and natural gas generation by both provided approximately 32% of total monthly generation for the U.S, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration.[8]

Storage and transport

The major difficulty in the use of natural gas is transportation and storage because of its low density. Natural gas pipelines are economical, but are impractical across oceans. Many existing pipelines in North America are close to reaching their capacity, prompting some politicians representing colder areas to speak publicly of potential shortages. In Europe, the gas pipeline network is already dense in the West[9]. New pipelines are planned or under construction in Eastern Europe and between gas fields in Russia, Near East and Northern Africa and Western Europe.

LNG carriers can be used to transport liquefied natural gas (LNG) across oceans, while tank trucks can carry liquefied or compressed natural gas (CNG) over shorter distances. Sea transport using CNG carrier ships that are now under development may be competitive with LNG transport in specific conditions.

For LNG transport a liquefaction plant is needed at the exporting end and regasification equipment at the receiving terminal. Shipborne regasification equipment is also practicable. LNG transportation is established as the preferred technology for long distance, high volume transportation of natural gas, whereas pipeline transport is preferred for transport for distances up to typically 4.000 km overland and approximately half that distance over seas.

For CNG transport high pressure, typically above 200 bars, is used. Compressors and decompression equipment are less capital intensive and may be economical in smaller unit sizes than liquefaction/regasification plants. For CNG mode the crucial problem is the investment and operating cost of carriers. Natural gas trucks and carriers may transport natural gas directly to end-users, or to distribution points such as pipelines for further transport.

In the past, the natural gas which was recovered in the course of recovering petroleum could not be profitably sold, and was simply burned at the oil field (known as flaring). This wasteful practice is now illegal in many countries[10]. Additionally, companies now recognize that value for the gas may be achieved with LNG, CNG, or other transportation methods to end-users in the future. The gas is now re-injected back into the formation for later recovery. This also assists oil pumping by keeping underground pressures higher. In Saudi Arabia, in the late 1970s, a "Master Gas System" was created, ending the need for flaring. Satellite observation unfortunately shows that some large gas-producing countries still use flaring[11] and venting routinely. The natural gas is used to generate electricity and heat for desalination. Similarly, some landfills that also discharge methane gases have been set up to capture the methane and generate electricity.

Natural gas is often stored underground inside depleted gas reservoirs from previous gas wells, salt domes, or in tanks as liquefied natural gas. The gas is injected during periods of low demand and extracted during periods of higher demand. Storage near the ultimate end-users helps to best meet volatile demands, but this may not always be practicable.

With 15 nations accounting for 84% of the worldwide production, access to natural gas has become a significant factor in international economics and politics. In this respect, control over the pipelines is a major strategic factor.[12] In particular, in the 2000s, Gazprom, the Russian national energy company, has engaged in disputes with Ukraine and Belarus over the price of its natural gas, which have created worries that gas deliveries to parts of Europe could be cut off for political reasons.[13]

Environmental effects

Climate change

Natural gas is often described as the cleanest fossil fuel, producing less carbon dioxide per joule delivered than either coal or oil,[7] and far fewer pollutants than other fossil fuels. Compared to the average air emissions from coal-fired generation, natural gas produces half as much carbon dioxide, less than a third as much nitrogen oxides, and one percent as much sulfur oxides at the power plant.[14] However, in absolute terms it does contribute substantially to global carbon emissions, and this contribution is projected to grow. According to the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (Working Group III Report, Chapter 4), in 2004 natural gas produced about 5,300 Mt/yr of CO2 emissions, while coal and oil produced 10,600 and 10,200 respectively; but by 2030, according to an updated version of the SRES B2 emissions scenario, natural gas would be the source of 11,000 Mt/yr, with coal and oil now 8,400 and 17,200 respectively.[15] According to the EPA, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with natural gas made up nearly 18 percent of total U.S. GHG emissions in 2006.[16]

In addition, natural gas is composed mainly of methane, a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide when released into the atmosphere. Methane has a global warming potential 72 times that of carbon dioxide (averaged over 20 years) or 25 times that of carbon dioxide (averaged over 100 years), according to the IPCC's Third Assessment Report.[17] (Note that the global warming potential of methane was estimated at 21 times that of carbon dioxide, averaged over 100 years, in the IPCC Second Assessment Report, and the 21 figure is currently used for regulatory purposes in the United States.[18]) Methane in the atmosphere is eventually oxidized, producing carbon dioxide and water. This breakdown accounts for the decline in the global warming potential of methane over longer periods of time.

It is inevitable in using natural gas on a large scale that some of it will leak into the atmosphere. Current USEPA estimates place global leakage of methane at 3 trillion cubic feet annually,[19] and 2.4% in the U.S.[20] Direct emissions of methane represented 14.3% of all global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions in 2004.[21]

EPA raises estimate of methane emissions from natural gas

In 2011, EPA’s released a new greenhouse gas report on natural gas that doubled its previous estimates for the amount of methane gas that leaks from loose pipe fittings and is vented from gas wells. Calculations for some gas-field emissions jumped by several hundred percent. Methane levels from the hydraulic fracturing of shale gas were 9,000 times higher than previously reported.[3]

According to ProPublica: "when scientists evaluate the greenhouse gas emissions of energy sources over their full lifecycle and incorporate the methane emitted during production, the advantage of natural gas holds true only when it is burned in more modern and efficient plants. But roughly half of the 1,600 gas-fired power plants in the United States operate at the lowest end of the efficiency spectrum. And even before the EPA sharply revised its data, these plants were only 32 percent cleaner than coal, according to a lifecycle analysis by Paulina Jaramillo, an energy expert and associate professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University. Now that the EPA has doubled its emissions estimates, the advantages are slimmer still. Based on the new numbers, the median gas-powered plant in the United States is just 40 percent cleaner than coal, according to calculations ProPublica made based on Jaramillo’s formulas. Those 800 inefficient plants offer only a 25 percent improvement."[3]

Less sulfates, more warming

A 2011 National Center for Atmospheric Research study found that cutting worldwide coal burning by half and using natural gas instead would increase global temperatures over the next four decades by about one-tenth of a degree Fahrenheit. This is because of estimated methane leakage and less sulfate emissions: while coal produces more global-warming gas per unit of energy than natural gas, the sulfates released by coal block incoming solar radiation, with a temporary, slight cooling effect.[22] A 2011 NASA study suggested that a decade-long lull in global warming may be due to large sulfur dioxide emissions from coal plants without pollution controls in Asia.[23]

Other Pollutants

Natural gas produces far lower amounts of sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxides than any other fossil fuel. Sulfur dioxide contributes to the formation of acid rain, and impairs the function of the upper respiratory system.[24] Nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas.[25]

Wildlife Impacts

According to an article released by the National Wildlife Federation in May 2010 titled "The Dirty Truth Behind Clean Natural Gas", isn't a clean energy source. As the article stated:

Energy sprawl is creeping across public lands in Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and the Dakotas. Nearly 120,000 wells (mostly natural gas) were drilled West-wide during the past decade, and 44 million acres of federal public lands are now leased to energy companies out of 256 million acres overseen by BLM. It is an energy boom bigger than any in the history of the West, and it is scarring some of the nation’s last great wide-open spaces. Wherever gas is drilled, wildlife and its habitat are suffering. Gas fields are spreading noxious weeds, polluting the air and fouling the water. Public lands valued for grazing, hunting, wildlife-watching, recreation and other multiple uses are being converted to single-use industrial zones.
Today, most of the remaining domestic reserves are so-called “unconventional” deposits trapped in shale, coal and sandstone formations. To free the gas, companies pump chemicals, sand and water into the ground under high pressure to fracture the rock formations, a process called fracking. Hydraulic fracturing fluids contain a toxic cocktail of petroleum distillates—benzene, toluene, and other carcinogens (the precise recipe is a trade secret). The fractured formations are then dewatered to release the gas.[26]

The article noted that in Wyoming the species most threatened by natural gas drilling included "sage grouse, pronghorn, raptors, mule deer and sagebrush-dependent songbirds, such as the Brewer’s sparrow, sage sparrow and sage thrasher." Gas fields are also noisy and disruptive to wildlife. "Workers rumble down dusty roads in 18-wheel tanker trucks. Diesel-powered compressors chug 24 hours a day," the report notes.

In 2009 a study conducted by The Nature Conservancy, National Audubon Society and the University of Montana estimated that western sage grouse "could decline another 19 percent, in addition to the 40 to 80 percent decline already suffered, if Western gas deposits are heavily drilled."[26]

Water Impacts

According to the National Wildlife Federation in one of the driest regions of the country, "groundwater is being polluted, pumped to the surface and dumped into holding ponds to evaporate ... in 2005 Congress exempted gas drillers from provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act by passing the “Halliburton loophole,” inserted into the law at the request of a former Halliburton executive, then vice president Dick Cheney. The 2005 Energy Bill also exempted drillers from storm water runoff provisions of the Clean Water Act. And Congress has provided exemptions from certain provisions of the Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act—allowing gas companies to avoid reporting their toxic emissions to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Toxics Release Inventory."[26]

The conservation group American Rivers reported in June 2010 that the Upper Delaware River is now the "most endangered river" in the United States due to natural gas drilling in New York and Pennsylvania. The group contended that the drilling above Marcellus Shale using hydraulic fracturing to extract 3 and 9 million gallons of water per drilling well, would put the river in further peril. The process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which is used to extract the gas, includes mixing water with sand and some "650 chemicals (many toxic and undisclosed)" that are pressure pumped into shale to release the trapped natural gas. As a result the extracting of the gas from this shale results in surface and groundwater pollution, air pollution, soil contamination, habitat fragmentation, and erosion.

The American Rivers report noted that "two companies alone--Chesapeake Appalachia and Statoil--have announced their intention to develop up to 17,000 gas wells in the region in next 20 years."[27]

Violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act

The 2005 Bush-Cheney Energy Policy Act exempted hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act, known as the "Halliburton Loophole." But it made one small exception: diesel fuel. The Policy Act states that the term “underground injection,” as it relates to the Safe Drinking Water Act, “excludes the underground injection of fluids or propping agents (other than diesel) pursuant to hydraulic fracturing operations related to oil, gas, or geothermal production activities [italics added].” But a congressional investigation has found that oil and gas service companies used tens of millions of gallons of diesel fuel in fracking operations between 2005 and 2009, thus violating the Safe Drinking Water Act. Diesel fuel contains a number of toxic constituents including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene, which have been linked to cancer and other health problems.[28]

In a letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, the congressional committee noted that between 2005 and 2009, “oil and gas service companies injected 32.2 million gallons of diesel fuel or hydraulic fracturing fluids containing diesel fuel in wells in 19 states.” None of the companies sought or received permits to do so. “This appears to be a violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act. It also means that the companies injecting diesel fuel have not performed the environmental reviews required by the law.” Yet because the necessary environmental reviews were circumvented, the companies were unable to provide data on whether they had used diesel in fracking operations in or near underground sources of drinking water.[28]

The EPA is conducting its own study of the impact of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water supplies, due out in late 2012. It is unknown whether companies that have violated the Safe Drinking Water Act since 2005 be held accountable. Matt Armstrong, a lawyer with the Washington firm Bracewell & Giuliani, which represents several oil and gas companies, told the New York Times: “Everyone understands that E.P.A. is at least interested in regulating fracking.” But: “Whether the E.P.A. has the chutzpah to try to impose retroactive liability for use of diesel in fracking, well, everyone is in a wait-and-see mode. I suspect it will have a significant fight on its hands if it tried it do that.”[28]

2011 study links natural gas drilling to water contamination

In May 2011, a scientific study linked natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing with a pattern of drinking water contamination so severe that some faucets can be lit on fire. The peer-reviewed study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, marking the first scientific study on the subject. The research was conducted by four scientists at Duke University. They found that levels of flammable methane gas in drinking water wells increased to dangerous levels when those water supplies were close to natural gas wells. They also found that the type of gas detected at high levels in the water was the same type of gas that energy companies were extracting from thousands of feet underground, implying that the gas may be seeping underground through natural or manmade faults and fractures, or coming from cracks in the well structure itself.[29]

The group tested 68 drinking water wells in the Marcellus and Utica shale drilling areas in northeastern Pennsylvania and southern New York State. Sixty of those wells were tested for dissolved gas. While most of the wells had some methane, the water samples taken closest to the gas wells had on average 17 times the levels detected in wells further from active drilling - i.e. within one kilometer, or about six tenths of a mile, from a gas well. The average concentration of the methane detected in the water wells near drilling sites fell squarely within a range that the U.S. Department of Interior says is dangerous and requires urgent “hazard mitigation” action, according to the study.[29]

The researchers did not find evidence that the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing had contaminated any of the wells they tested, but they were alarmed by what they described as a clear correlation between drilling activity and the seepage of gas contaminants underground. Methane contamination of drinking water wells has been a common complaint among people living in gas drilling areas across the country. A 2009 investigation by ProPublica revealed that methane contamination from drilling was widespread, including in Colorado, Ohio and Pennsylvania. In several cases, homes blew up after gas seeped into their basements or water supplies. In Pennsylvania a 2004 accident killed three people, including a baby.[29]

Methane is not regulated in drinking water, and while research is limited, it is not currently believed to be harmful to drink. But the methane can collect in enclosed spaces it can asphyxiate people nearby, or lead to an explosion. Congressman Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) is one of several Democratic members of Congress who recently re-introduced the FRAC Act, which calls for public disclosure of the chemicals used underground. The bill would remove an exemption in federal law that prohibits the EPA from regulating hydraulic fracturing.[29]

Documentary film Gasland and hydraulic fracturing

Gasland Trailer

Gasland is a 2010 documentary about unconventional gas drilling, or fracking. Its director, Josh Fox, lives in the Upper Delaware River Basin, on the border between Pennsylvania and New York State, part of the area of Marcellus Shale. (For more information on Gasland, Marcellus Shale, and the impact of drilling on drinking water, please see SourceWatch's water clearinghouse.) In May 2008, Fox received a letter from a natural gas mining company, who wanted to lease 19.5 acres of land from Fox for $100,000. On an interview on NPR's Fresh Air, Fox said the company stated,"'We might not even drill. We don't even know if there's gas here. It's going to be a fire hydrant in the middle of a field — very little impact to your land. You won't hardly know we're here.' " Instead of saying yes, Fox decided to travel around the country to see how the process of natural gas drilling affected other communities and homeowners, producing the documentary Gasland.[30]

In the Fresh Air interview, Fox talked about the effects of unconventional gas drilling, and lack of regulations on hydraulic fracturing, also known as "Fracking": "Hydraulic fracturing is a process of injecting, at incredibly high pressure, a huge volume of water — they use between 2 and 7 million gallons of water per frack to fracture the rock formation. It's called unconventional gas drilling. It fractures that rock apart and gets at all of the tiny bubbles of the gas that are sort of infused in that rock. In order to do that, they inject [these] million gallons of fluid down the wellbore that breaks apart the rock. It causes a kind of mini-earthquake under very intense pressure. What seems to be happening is that's liberating gas and other volatile, organic compounds. ... The volatile organics are released along with the gas. Sometimes they're used as part of the compounds. The fracking fluid creates this. You're releasing volatile organics, which are carcinogenic, and that is traveling, somehow — along with the methane — getting into peoples' water supply so that it's flammable."[30]

Some homeowners he spoke to noticed that their water had been discolored, or was starting to bubble. In some communities, people were able to light the water coming out of their faucets on fire — because chemicals from the natural gas drilling process had seeped into the water, an event documented in the film. Despite the pollutants, Fox says, "[t]he gas industry is very powerful, and their power in Congress is well shown. They were exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act by the 2005 Energy bill. The Safe Drinking Water Act monitors underground injection of toxin. They were also exempted in previous years from the Clean Air Act, the Superfund Law.... It's an unregulated industry."[30]

At the end of the interview, Fox summed up the extent of the reach of the gas industry into community water supplies:[30]

Josh Fox: "You'd be surprised at how many of those summer camps are leasing [their land to natural gas companies]. Listen, we're talking about 65 percent of Pennsylvania, 50 percent of New York. Even if the summer camps aren't leased, their neighbors are leasing."

Terry Gross: "You know, I never thought of that. So that means some of the summer camps might become oil wells?"

Josh Fox: "Well, no. Listen. What the gas company is saying is, 'You can live where this is happening. You can go to camp where this is happening.' If watersheds are not off the table, schools are not off the table, summer camps are not off the table — near hospitals are not off the table. You have close to 15,000 wells in the downtown Fort Worth area — in the urban area, in the country, in the city. This is everywhere. So it stands to reason if you can put it next to somebody's house and the gas company says that's OK, you can put it in the middle of a summer camp. You can put it in the middle of a lake. You can put it right on the banks of the Colorado River, which supplies all the water to Los Angeles. This is what we're seeing."

PA Department of Homeland Security collecting and distributing information on drilling protestors

In September 2010, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell admitted that information about municipal zoning hearings on Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling and a screening of the documentary "Gasland," as well as an anti-BP candlelight vigil and other peaceful gatherings, were the subject of anti-terrorism bulletins being distributed by Pennsylvania's homeland security office. Rendell admitted that distributing the information was tantamount to trampling on constitutional rights, as the bulletins were going to representatives of Pennsylvania's natural gas industry.[31]

Also included in the bulletins were other potential "anti-terrorism security" concerns that it said could involve "anarchists and Black Power radicals." Also listed were demonstrations by anti-war groups, deportation protesters in Philadelphia, mountaintop removal mining protesters in West Virginia, and an animal rights protest at a Montgomery County rodeo. Despite saying he regretted the actions, Rendell said he was not firing his homeland security director, James Powers, but that he was ordering an end to the $125,000 contract with the Philadelphia-based organization that supplied the information, the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response.[31]

Someone who received an Aug. 30 bulletin gave a copy to Virginia Cody, a retired Air Force officer who lives in Factoryville and is concerned about the rapid expansion of Marcellus Shale drilling in northeastern Pennsylvania. Cody gave the document to a friend, who posted it on an online forum largely read by drilling opponents in the area. After it was posted online, Powers sent Cody an e-mail saying that the bulletin was intended for owners, operators and security personnel associated with the state's "critical infrastructure and key resources." He closed by saying, "We want to continue providing this support to the Marcellus Shale Formation natural gas stakeholders while not feeding those groups fomenting dissent against those same companies."[31]

Reserves

According to Think Progress: "It’s often said that America has a 100-year supply of natural gas. However, those figures, which are based on estimates from the Potential Gas Committee, factor in 'proved' reserves, 'possible' reserves and 'speculative' reserves. If we narrow these figures down to proven, technically-exploitable resources based upon current natural gas consumption rates, more cautious estimates put our supply at roughly 11-21 years" (based on a 2010 national consumption rate of 24 tcf / year).[32]

In its 2012 Annual Energy Outlook, the U.S Energy Information Administration cut estimates of unproved technically recoverable gas resources by 42%.[33]

NY Times article on speculation

A June 2011 N.Y. Times analysis of hundreds of oil/gas industry e-mails and internal documents found that energy executives, industry lawyers, state geologists and market analysts often voiced skepticism about optimistic natural gas reserve forecasts and questioned whether companies were intentionally, and perhaps even illegally, overstating the productivity of their gas wells and the size of their gas reserves. Many of the existing gas wells were depleting much more quickly than companies had been expecting.[34]

The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), created in response to the energy crisis of the 1970s to provide "independent and impartial energy information" to lawmakers, has been critiqued for its methods of collecting data on shale gas. The EIA relies on research from outside consultants with ties to the industry. Some of the consultants pull the data they supply to the government from energy company news releases. Projections about future supplies of natural gas, therefore, are based not just on science but also some guesswork and modeling. Regardless, EIA administrator Richard G. Newell has hailed the prospects for shale gas by calling it a “game changer” in the United States energy mix.[35]

Reports

2012 study: Four percent of natural gas lost to atmosphere

In February 2012, researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Colorado, Boulder estimated in the Journal of Geophysical Research that natural-gas producers in an area known as the Denver-Julesburg Basin are losing about 4% of their gas to the atmosphere, not including additional losses in the pipeline and distribution system. That is more than double the official inventory, but in line with a 2011 estimate in the journal Climatic Change.[36]

2011 study finds shale GHG footprint worse than coal

A 2011 study, "Methane and the Greenhouse-Gas Footprint of Natural Gas from Shale Formations" by scientists at Cornell University found that "3.6% to 7.9% of the methane from shale-gas production escapes to the atmosphere in venting and leaks over the life-time of a well. These methane emissions are at least 30% more than and perhaps more than twice as great as those from conventional gas. The higher emissions from shale gas occur at the time wells are hydraulically fractured -- as methane escapes from flow-back return fluids -- and during drill out following the fracturing."

Shale gas is “unconventional” gas found in deeply buried sedimentary rock called shale. Domestic production in the U.S. was predominantly from conventional reservoirs through the 1990s, but by 2009 U.S. unconventional production exceeded that of conventional gas. The Department of Energy (EIA) predicts that by 2035 total domestic production will grow by 20%, with unconventional gas providing 75% of the total. The greatest growth is predicted for shale gas, increasing from 16% of total production in 2009 to an expected 45% in 2035.

The study notes that the methane released from fracking shale gas "contributes substantially to the greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas on shorter time scales, dominating it on a 20-year time horizon. The footprint for shale gas is greater than that for conventional gas or oil when viewed on any time horizon, but particularly so over 20 years. Compared to coal, the footprint of shale gas is at least 20% greater and perhaps more than twice as great on the 20-year horizon and is comparable when compared over 100 years."

2010 MIT study sponsored in part by natural gas think tank encourages use of natural gas

In June 2010, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology released a two-year study, "The Future of Natural Gas," encouraging U.S. policymakers to consider natural gas as a short-term substitute for aging coal-fired power plants. A major sponsor of the report is the American Clean Skies Foundation, a Washington think tank created and funded by the natural gas industry. The MIT team of researchers was led by Ernest Moniz, a physics professor and director of the MIT Energy Initiative, and a touted candidate for the next energy secretary.[37]

The report acknowledges that U.S. energy and climate policy is in flux, and predominantly accepts the idea that the advancement of onshore gas drilling technology has set the stage for a gas boom in the United States. The report projects gas production in the Marcellus Shale and other gas fields in the Northeast, stretching from New England through the Great Lake states, is set to rise 78 percent by 2030, and that electric utilities and other sectors of the American economy will use more gas through 2050. As such, the MIT researchers analyze increasing gas consumption under a number of different scenarios. Under a scenario that envisions a federal policy aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions to 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2050, researchers found a substantial role for natural gas, with the share represented by gas projected to rise from about 20 percent of the current national total to around 40 percent in 2040. The report also projects natural gas vehicles will be 15 percent of the private vehicle fleet by 2050.[37]

The report sees gas as an option for cutting power plant emissions and addressing global warming in the short term, but the researchers warn that the gas cushion shouldn't distract policymakers from considering nuclear power and carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology for coal-fired generation.[37]

American Public Power Association report finds switching from coal to natural gas would cost nearly $700 billion

In the July 2010 report "Implications of Greater Reliance on Natural Gas for Electricity Generation", consulting firm Aspen Environmental Group (Aspen), who conducted the study for the American Public Power Association (APPA), a collection of 2,000 community-owned utilities, concluded that "The magnitude of the investment that would be needed ... seems inconsistent with the oft-touted idea of natural gas as a temporary 'bridge' fuel." The study had financial support from the Utility Air Regulatory Group and other electric utilities.[38]

Principal investigator for the report Catherine Elder, a senior research associate at the Aspen Environmental Group, analyzed the economics of shutting down all U.S. coal plants and shifting to cleaner-burning natural gas in a carbon-regulated economy. She found that replacing 335,000 MW of coal-fired generation would cost in the range of $335 billion, and would require an additional $348 billion of new pipeline capacity.[38]

APPA said the primary difference between the study conducted by Aspen and MIT's is that Aspen's focuses primarily on the infrastructure issues surrounding a switch from coal to natural gas. APPA also noted that the MIT report said the nation has enough natural gas to equal over 90 years' worth at present domestic consumption rates, but Aspen found much of that is from unconventional sources, including shale gas, whose future may be threatened from coming environmental regulation, due to the negative health and environmental effects from the measures required to get the gas, such as hydrofracking. In May 2010, the Pennsylvania House of Representative passed a bill that would ban drilling near rivers, lakes, and drinking water sources, and would require disclosure of chemicals. Going further, State Rep. Phyllis Mundy (D) later introduced a bill calling for a moratorium on shale drilling in the state. In early 2010, in response to growing concerns, EPA announced that it would conduct a $1.9 million, two-year study into the potential adverse impacts of fracking. The Aspen report suggests that uncertainties around fracking could pose hurdles for the natural gas sector, which is banking on shale for its success as a bridge fuel.[38]

References

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  2. Ian Urbina, "Regulation Lax as Gas Wells’ Tainted Water Hits Rivers," NY Times, February 26, 2011.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 "Climate Benefits of Natural Gas May Be Overstated" ProPublica, Jan. 25, 2011.
  4. Acid Rain Program 2005 Progress Report, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, page 10, citing Gruenspecht, Howard. (2006, February 9). Deputy Administrator of the Energy Information Administration, Department of Energy. Statement before the Subcommittee on Clean Air, Climate Change, and Nuclear Safety of the Committee on Environment and Public Works in the United States Senate. p.3.
  5. Natural gas overview
  6. http://www.manure.umn.edu/
  7. 7.0 7.1 Natural Gas and the Environment
  8. "Natural gas power generation matches coal’s for first time" Steve Gelsi, The Wall Street Journal, July 12, 2012.
  9. Gas Infrasturcture Europe, retrieved June 18. 2009
  10. Hyne, Norman J. (1991). Dictionary of petroleum exploration, drilling & production. pg. 190: PennWell Books, 625. ISBN 0878143521. 
  11. Satellite observation of flares in the world
  12. The Contours of the New Cold War
  13. Gazprom and Russian Foreign Policy
  14. Timothy Hurst, "Cleaner Natural Gas: New Ways to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions" Celsias, June 3, 2009.
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  16. "Overview: Coverage of Natural Gas Emissions & Flows" PewCenter, accessed December 2010.
  17. Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M. Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)"Climate Change 2007: Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis: 2.10.2 Direct Global Warming Potentials", IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007, Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  18. "Methane," U.S. Environmental Protection Agency information page, accessed July 2010
  19. nytimes.com: Curbing Emissions by Sealing Gas Leaks
  20. Joe Romm, "Natural Gas Is A Bridge To Nowhere Absent A Carbon Price AND Strong Standards To Reduce Methane Leakage," Think Progress, April 9, 2012.
  21. US EPA: Climate Economics
  22. Geoff Mohan, "Clean natural gas? Not so fast, study says" LA Times, Sep. 8, 2011.
  23. Adam Voiland, "Has Sulfate Pollution from Asia Masked a Decade of Warming?" NASA, July 6, 2011.
  24. Sulfur dioxide: Health and environmental impacts of SO2,EPA, accessed April 2008.
  25. 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) by Working Group 1 (WG1), Chapter 2 "Changes in Atmospheric Constituents and in Radiative Forcing" which contains information on global warming potential (GWP) of greenhouse gases.
  26. 26.0 26.1 26.2 "The Dirty Truth Behind Clean Natural Gas" Paul Tolmé, National Wildlife, May 15, 2010.
  27. "Meet America's Most Endangered River, Thanks to the Natural Gas Drilling Industry" Nora Eisenberg, Alternet.org, June 4, 2010.
  28. 28.0 28.1 28.2 Adam Federman, "Oil and Gas Companies Illegally Using Diesel in Fracking" AlterNet, Feb. 1, 2011.
  29. 29.0 29.1 29.2 29.3 Abrahm Lustgarten, "Scientific Study Links Flammable Drinking Water to Fracking" ProPublica, May 9, 2011.
  30. 30.0 30.1 30.2 30.3 "Josh Fox: Living In The Middle Of A 'Gasland'" NPR, June 25, 2010.
  31. 31.0 31.1 31.2 Marc Levy, "`Appalled' Pa. gov. shuts down reports on protests" AP, Sep. 15, 2010.
  32. Stephen Lacey, "Top Three Reasons Cheap Natural Gas Won’t Kill Renewable Energy," Think Progress, Feb. 21, 2012.
  33. Stephen Lacey, "Top Three Reasons Cheap Natural Gas Won’t Kill Renewable Energy," Think Progress, Feb. 21, 2012.
  34. Ian Urbina, "Insiders Sound an Alarm Amid a Natural Gas Rush" NY Times, June 25, 2011.
  35. Ian Urbina, "Behind Veneer, Doubt on Future of Natural Gas" NY Times, June 26, 2011.
  36. Jeff Tollefson, "Air sampling reveals high emissions from gas field: Methane leaks during production may offset climate benefits of natural gas," Nature, Feb. 7, 2012.
  37. 37.0 37.1 37.2 Joel Kirkland, "MIT Researchers See Natural Gas as the Choice for Lower Carbon Emissions" NY Times, June 25, 2010.
  38. 38.0 38.1 38.2 Stacey Feldman, "Natural Gas Boom Not Worth Costs and Risks, Study Warns" One Climate July 11, 2010.

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