Though natural gas has been promoted as a low-emission alternative to other fossil fuels, not all natural gas is created equal. The extraction of gas that is trapped in shale deposits may create more greenhouse gas emissions than coal, according to a new study. Understandably, the release of the study has resulted in pushback from the gas industry. Also coming to the industry’s defense is an op-ed by New York Times writer Joe Nocera, which basically concludes that fracking in the newly discovered Marcellus shale formation helps to reduce “the strategic importance of the Middle East, where American soldiers continue to die.” That’s a rather emotional line of argument, especially considering that fracking in the Marcellus does not appear to be consistent with the Pentagon’s long term national defense strategy.
If you’re new to the topic, fracking is short for hydrofracturing, in which a chemical brine is pumped underground to free gas from shale. The brine has to be trucked in, and briny wastewater has to be trucked out and/or disposed, which can involve millions of gallons and hundreds of truckloads. Fracking is exempt from federal clean water legislation (long story!), but it has been linked to a growing list of drinking water contamination episodes around the country.
Methane Leaks from Fracking
One surprise of the new study, lead by Robert Howarth of Cornell University, is that the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions from fracking are the result of methane leaks from the operation itself. Trucking plays a relatively minor role. According to Mike Soraghan at Greenwire, the U.S. EPA has also been taking a hard look at lifecycle emissions from fracking. Though its findings are not as dramatic, EPA does conclude that when methane leaks from fracking are taken into account, gas is not nearly as clean, compared to coal, as previously thought.
Fracking and People
Nocera contends that people living on the Marcellus formation can choose to “accept the inconvenience that drilling will bring, but insist that it be done properly.” It is not clear that Mr. Nocera has a handle on how many people will be inconvenienced. The Marcellus is not located in sparsely populated areas, as he implies by describing (though perhaps not fully) fracking in the southwest. It affects major population concentrations in New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, as well as Ohio, West Virginia and several others. The drinking water supply of New York City, for example, is potentially at risk. It is also not clear how Marcellus residents can effectively ensure that fracking is done “properly” in today’s regulatory climate, in which state legislators are working to dismantle environmental regulations, in addition to an anti-regulatory push by federal legislators.
Fracking and National Defense
This brings us to national defense. Nocera lays a pretty heavy burden on Marcellus residents – basically, if they don’t quit fighting against fracking, more soldiers will die in the Middle East. That is not consistent with the environmental stewardship strategy that the Department of Defense has developed. Though expressed in different terms by the various branches of the armed services, it can be summed up the mission statement of the Army Vision for Net Zero, which includes water resources as well as energy: “We are creating a culture that recognizes the value of sustainability measured not just in terms of financial benefits, but benefits to maintaining mission capability, quality of life, relationships with local communities, and the preservation of options for the Army’s future.” It would be difficult to argue that fracking in the Marcellus meets this “value of sustainability” standard as applied to quality of life and relationships with local communities.
A Bit More on National Defense
The military’s adoption of an environmental stewardship mission is not new. In 2002, the Department of Defense stepped up its official environmental policy, stating that “simply complying with environmental laws and regulations is not enough.” To be clear, this does not necessarily mean that DoD has an official anti-gas policy, but natural gas has not emerged as a long term strategic priority. Bottom line: whether you are an investor in an energy company, a Marcellus resident, or any citizen concerned about the future availability of safe drinking water, feel free to weigh in.
Update: U.S. Representatives weigh in (pdf).
Image: Natural gas by Lee J. Haywood on flickr.com.