In the search for fossil fuel alternatives, natural gas is receiving a lot of buzz from people like Texas oil-man-turned-wind-advocate T. Boone Pickens and environmental activist Robert Kennedy Jr. They champion its relatively clean-burning properties and are smitten with the idea that the United States is sitting atop enough of it to fulfill the country’s energy needs for about 100 years. However, mining shale natural gas requires drilling and pumping chemicals into the ground through hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” The process has come under fire, particularly since June 3, when a well blowout in Clearfield County in Pennsylvania sent more than 35,000 gallons of fracking fluids into the air and surrounding forested area. Natural gas mining has also been targeted as a source of drinking water contamination. In one stunning scene in the documentary Gasland, which aired on HBO in June, residents near a fracking site demonstrated how they could set their tap water on fire by lighting a match next to it.
Now, a new report, “Addressing Environmental Risks from Shale Gas Development” by the Worldwatch Institute says, in essence, that for natural gas to become part of the clean energy solution, it first has to clean up its own act. The report examines the risks fracking poses to local water quality and the environment, and the technologies and policies needed to overcome them. It found that, properly designed, a hydraulic fracturing system should pose very little risk to water supplies. However, faulty construction poses a “significant risks to the environment,” which should be better studied and are “essential for society to make well-informed decisions about its energy future.”
Co-author Saya Kitasei stated, “Although the technologies, best practices, and regulations that can help minimize these risks exist, they have not yet been universally adopted. Experiences in Colorado, Wyoming, Pennsylvania and New York demonstrate that strong public pressure exists for stricter oversight.”
Natural gas extraction is not a big industry in Nevada, which produces about 4 million cubic feet of it per year. That’s less than the East Coast’s Marcellus Shale well pumps each day. More than half of Nevada households use natural gas as their main source to heat their homes. However, most of that is imported from Utah and the Rocky Mountain region. In March 2011, the Ruby Pipeline is slated to start running 618 miles of natural gas pipeline from Wyoming through northern Utah and Nevada and ending in Oregon.