What’s wrong with natural gas?

easement32By Stephen J. Spaulding

There’s a widespread belief that natural gas is an environmentally friendly fuel that is abundant and cheap. This perception is at best overly simplistic; when industry players and politicians seek to exploit it by trumpeting these supposed benefits as justification for projects like the Northeast Energy Direct (NED) pipeline, it becomes downright dangerous.

To be sure, natural gas does offer certain advantages. An important one is that the emissions that are produced by burning gas are considerably lower than those produced by burning coal or oil. If the fuel pumped through the proposed pipeline were destined to replace these other fossil fuels, New England’s carbon emissions would be reduced and its air quality would improve. The fact is, however, that this replacement has already largely occurred, with natural gas currently supplying more than half of New England’s needs for heat and electricity while the combined share for coal and oil has declined to less than five percent. Furthermore, although relatively clean, natural gas is a fossil fuel that does add carbon to the atmosphere. Thus, an increased gas supply would offer virtually no gain in terms of regional environmental goals.

Something in the air

Further weakening the case for natural gas from an environmental standpoint are the ugly truths about the extraction and transmission of this fuel. One of the greatest dangers of increasing reliance on natural gas lies in the fact that methane, making up more than 80 percent of the product, is itself a tremendously potent greenhouse gas. It is far more potent than carbon dioxide (between 20 and 80 times worse, depending on the time period over which the impact is measured). This climate-threatening gas leaks directly into the atmosphere in great quantities at the drilling site, all along the pipeline route, and at the final destination. In fact, many analyses show that this leakage, combined with the enormous energy consumption needed for extraction and transmission, more than negate any overall gains resulting from burning gas in place of coal.

When the people say no

All of the gas that would flow through the NED pipeline would be obtained by hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” While fracking may be an “out of sight, out of mind” practice for most New Englanders, it has a devastating impact on the health and well-being of many thousands of Americans living in the shadow of the drilling rigs. In addition, it requires enormous quantities of water and energy, greatly offsetting relative gains in other areas.

Understandably, the rush to “drill, baby, drill” has led to steadily increasing resistance among a great many environmentalists, directly affected citizens, and people who simply don’t want pristine landscapes transformed into noisy eyesores. Even though the fossil fuel industry and its political supporters have been very successful in their efforts to resist regulation of fracking, mounting pressure from the public and the scientific community will certainly impede the ability of the drilling companies to expand operations at the breathtaking rate that has characterized the past ten years or so. This, in turn, will be a factor in suppressing supply and driving up costs.

About that 100-year supply

Even if we discount the social and political pressures, it is clear that the abundance of natural gas has been greatly exaggerated. Available reserves have proved to be far less than industry cheerleaders have claimed. Well productivity declines rapidly, typically between 60 and 80 percent in the first year of operation.

Show them the money

As the cost of producing natural gas rises, naturally so does the price paid by consumers. The suppliers of the fuel are profit-driven corporations that make no secret of the fact that they are eager to command a higher price for their product. Compounding the upward trend is the fact that overseas prices are several times higher than those currently paid in the United States. Many followers of the NED project believe that much of the gas flowing through the pipe would be intended for export.

Opportunities lost

Perhaps the strongest argument against NED and similar projects is that any such large-scale expansion of the fossil fuel infrastructure impedes development of the truly clean, sustainable energy policies that the world clearly needs. Fossil fuels are finite and environmentally damaging, whereas renewable, green alternatives exist, are already viable, and offer the potential for tremendous economic growth in New England. Moreover, even as we continue to rely on traditional fuel sources, the potential exists for tremendous savings through conservation, improved efficiency, repairs to the leaky infrastructure, and modernization of the electric grid. NHPipelineAwareness.org advocates striving with all possible urgency for such responsible solutions.

In conclusion

There is no prospect of eliminating natural gas from our regional or national energy portfolio anytime in the near future, and we don’t advocate shutting off the pipes. We need to recognize, however, that expanding our reliance on fossil fuels is not the way to meet the great challenge of preserving our environment and providing a livable future for ourselves and those who will come after us.