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Is natural gas truly a clean source of energy?

by: PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT  - This complex near Mist, a small town an hour northwest of Portland, was Oregon's largest natural gas field, and now is mostly used by NW Natural to store large quantities of natural gas underground. Natural gas has a reputation as the cleanest fossil

fuel.

When burned, it causes far less air pollution than oil or coal, and half the greenhouse gas emissions of coal.

And thanks to advanced drilling techniques, the United States is awash in natural gas, shaving utility costs for residents and businesses and giving the nation more energy security.

But before we rush headlong into touting natural gas as the energy source of the 21st Century, it’s worth asking if it’s environmentally sound.

The new drilling methods — hydraulic fracturing or fracking — are blamed for air and water pollution and causing minor earthquakes. Studies show they also increase the methane gas that escapes into the atmosphere from natural gas operations, known as “fugitive emissions.”

Methane, the largest component of natural gas, is a greenhouse gas with 25 times the potency of carbon dioxide. Fugitive emissions mean natural gas “very quickly” loses its advantage over coal as a transitional strategy to avert climate change, says Angus Duncan, chairman of the Oregon Global Warming Commission.

“Some of the excitement about natural gas as an alternative to coal has evaporated,” says John Sturm, a Portland

environmental attorney.

Lost gas, lost money

Methane emissions have long been a concern for industry because every molecule of escaping gas is lost revenue. Fugitive emissions occur at every stage: drilling the gas, sending it from gas fields over interstate pipelines, and distributing it to consumers via smaller pipes.

Energy expert Hal Harvey estimates that if 2.5 percent of natural gas escapes into the air, that wipes away its advantage over coal for greenhouse gas emissions.  

A May 2011 report by the U.S. National Energy Technology Laboratory found that 1.7 percent of natural gas extracted domestically winds up as fugitive emissions, and 2.3 percent is lost when drillers vent or flare it during production. 

NW Natural, the Portland utility that serves the metro area and other communities, operates 22,000 miles of pipes that carry gas from the regional pipeline directly to customers.

“I can tell you that for our system the leaks are miniscule,” says Randy Friedman, the utility’s director of gas supply.

Metering shows that NW Natural sells all but 0.3 percent of the gas it buys via the interstate pipeline system. The unaccounted-for gas might be due to fugitive emissions or other factors, Friedman says.

Williams Northwest Pipeline, the Salt Lake City company that pipes gas from well fields to regional utilities, declined to provide figures on fugitive emissions from its interstate system.

Dan Kirschner, executive director of the Northwest Gas Association, estimates that methane leaks on the interstate pipeline are less than 1 percent.

The biggest methane leaks tend to come from the wells where gas is extracted, says Bill Edmonds, NW Natural’s director of environmental management and sustainability.

Fracking changes game

Hydraulic fracturing, first used in the 1940s, injects huge volumes of water, sand and chemicals underground, which releases natural gas in difficult-to-extract areas. In the past decade, drillers mastered using it in tandem with horizontal drilling. That enabled drillers to go straight down and then sideways to access gas embedded into shale rock. Geologists have long known there’s a vast supply of natural gas in shale, but it couldn’t be tapped easily.

Environmentalists say fracking often fouls the air, the water and the land. In some horror stories, residents lit a match to their tap water and saw it catch fire, because of methane leaks.

Oregon and Washington lack major gas fields, so the Northwest has stayed outside the fracking fray that’s engulfed Pennsylvania and New York.

NW Natural buys most of its gas from wells in Alberta, British Columbia, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico.

“We’re not a company that does fracking,” Friedman says.

Fracking has been used in the Rockies since the 1940s, he says. But Friedman says he’s not aware of any shale fields there, which is the source of most of the environmental concerns.

Oregon has yet to see a single application to engage in the kind of intense fracking for natural gas done in the Marcellus Shale, a vast tract in the Appalachian states, says Bill Mason, a senior groundwater hydrologist for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

Maps of shale formations produced by the U.S. Energy Information Administration show no deposits in Oregon or Washington. The closest is a recent discovery of shale in Idaho, across the Snake River from Oregon, Mason says.

Should consumers care?

NW Natural staff say customers don’t ask if their gas is derived from fracking.

But there’s no way NW Natural, or electric utilities buying fuel for gas-fired plants, can pinpoint where their gas comes from, since they pull it off interstate pipelines.

Portland gas customers should be concerned, Sturm says, especially since NW Natural’s $250 million deal last year to acquire a stake in the Jonah Field in Wyoming. The utility inked a 30-year joint venture with Canadian-owned Encana Corp., which will provide about 8 percent to 10 percent of NW Natural’s gas. 

“I would be surprised that any of the gas that came out of the Jonah Field is not fracked,” Sturm says.

There’s also undeveloped shale fields in British Columbia that may be tapped if pipelines are extended to that area.

A peer-reviewed 2011 study led by researcher Robert Howarth estimated that methane emissions from fracking at shale fields range from 3.6 percent to 7.9 percent, much higher than at traditional natural gas fields. As a result, they calculated the carbon footprint from shale operations is 30 percent to 100 higher. 

By 2035, 45 percent of the nation’s natural gas is projected to come from shale, up from 14 percent in 2009. 

Benefits of fracking

Fracking has brought sorely needed jobs to many states, and dramatically lowered prices, even in Oregon.

“It’s a big reason why our rates are down to where they were in 2004,” Edmonds says. “Households are saving an average of $900 a year” nationally, he says, citing one study.

Horizontal drilling also alleviates the need to drill as many holes into the land, Kirschner says, “so the surface impact is small.”  

Federal regulators have been slow to respond to the environmental concerns associated with fracking.

In 2004, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under industry-friendly President George W. Bush concluded that fracking wouldn’t harm groundwater. Companies weren’t even required to divulge the chemicals being injected underground. The Bush administration and Congress then exempted companies that frack from compliance with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, leaving regulation up to the states.

Subsequently, the Obama Administration required anyone doing fracking on federal lands to divulge the chemicals.

Obama also ordered a study on the environmental hazards of fracking by a subcommittee of the Department of Energy. Last August, that panel recommended improved drilling practices, thorough studies on methane gas leaks, and disclosure of the chemicals used in fracking.

Northwest gas industry leaders say environmental practices are improving, and must continue to do so.

“It is a clean energy when burned, and that’s why it’s important to make sure that we’re producing it right, so that clean reputation holds up,” Kirschner says. “If we get it wrong, we fumbled the ball.”

Sturm says natural gas is probably better for the environment than coal, even with fugitive emissions, but energy efficiency and renewable energy are preferable to coal and gas plants.

“We jumped from one fossil fuel to another,” he says, “when we should be jumping off of them entirely.”