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Shale gas: an additional source of energy and problems
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Shale gas: an additional source of energy and problems

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MIDLAND – December 12, 2018

The U.S. government has become a pitchman for the natural gas industry. That could raise profits — and temperatures. But cheap gas appeared to be too expensive for America in terms of environmental safety.  Three states — Louisiana, Texas and Pennsylvania-are on the verge of an environmental disaster.

American gas production is projected to account for almost 40% of the world’s gas growth through 2040, according to the International Energy Agency. Countries like China are buying up tank loads of LNG — natural gas that has been supercooled to liquefy it — to generate power, heat buildings, and fuel trucks.

“When it comes to exporting LNG, the United States is open for business,” Mark Menezes, Under Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, assured the audience at the launch of the gas initiative. Menezes, a former utility industry lobbyist, added that exporting U.S. liquified natural gas is “clearly in our economic interest.”

Last November, the U.S. Gas Infrastructure Exports Initiative was launched— a coalition of 25 companies, 9 trade groups, 5 law firms, at least 5 federal agencies, and a nonprofit think tank. Its mission: to drive sales of American natural gas by pumping dollars into pipelines and gas-processing facilities overseas.

The initiative, coordinated in part by a natural gas lobbyist, is the latest federal effort to market the fuel as a “clean” energy source amid surging U.S. drilling and exports.

Since its launch a year ago, the initiative has funded 13 gas projects in 20+ countries and generated more than $1.5 billion in exports, according to the U.S. Trade Development Agency, which heads the program. USTDA is a tiny federal office that helps companies secure funding for projects in developing countries like India and Mozambique as a way to promote U.S. goods and services. In letters to members of Congress, USTDA described the gas initiative as a way “to ensure that emerging markets have the gas infrastructure necessary to be long-term off-takers of U.S. LNG exports.”

The idea for the gas initiative dates back to the Obama administration, when USTDA officials began planning a public-private partnership centered on gas exports. That effort, which was part of an overall strategy by Obama officials to promote LNG as a climate-friendly fuel, stalled but was ultimately launched by the current administration. The agency had been targeted for elimination by Trump but survived, becoming a fervent champion of his “energy dominance” agenda.

The United States has been developing shale gas at an enormous rate for the past decade. This huge upturn in development has brought economic benefits to the U.S. Landowners who lease their land to shale gas developers have become very wealthy, and the U.S. is expected to become a net exporter of natural gas by 2018, providing energy security and bringing further economic gains.

This development has, however, come with evidence of environmental impacts. Oil — and natural gas, which comes up with it — releases carbon dioxide when burned. On top of that, methane — an even more potent greenhouse gas — leaks from wells, pipelines and other parts of the supply chain. A number of the shale gas wells drilled in Pennsylvania and Texas have been shown to leak, impacting air quality and causing groundwater contamination.

Shale gas extraction technology injects into the drilled wells a mixture of water, chemicals and sand. There is a hydraulic shock, which destroys the walls of gas collectors, which allows to pump all available gas to the surface. 

You can easily find videos online of how tap water catches on fire in areas where shale companies are working. This means that methane has entered an aquifer much closer to the surface than shale rock. The gas is light, so it finds the opportunity to escape to the surface, but if the drinking water gets contaminated due to the fracking, according to scientists, it’s really unsafe to use. The composition of the fracking contamination is not fully disclosed, but it is clearly an extremely poisonous substance.

Texas regulators, long criticized for being too industry-friendly, seem wholly unprepared for what’s happening. Booms, predictably, bring air pollution, oil spills, groundwater loss, and contamination. But the state isn’t tracking or policing these problems aggressively. For example, the Texas portion of the Permian — roughly the size of Georgia — has only a few air pollution monitoring stations, leaving residents largely in the dark about what’s in the air they breathe.

In return for mostly leaving the industry alone, the state receives a lot of money. Oil and gas tax revenue is up more than 50% this year. But there are major trade-offs — and not just for locals. Scientists warn this drilling rush almost certainly will worsen climate change by increasing the world’s fossil fuel use at a fraught time. They say drastic reductions in greenhouse gases are needed to avoid intensifying climate-linked disasters already pummeling the planet.

Programs like the gas initiative are contributing to an infrastructure build-out that environmentalists and researchers say will lock the globe into using another fossil fuel for decades.

This comes as the science underpinning the fuel’s status as a climate-friendly alternative to coal has eroded. Natural gas is made up primarily of methane, a potent greenhouse gas many times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Recent research shows methane leaks at oil and gas sites were 60% higher than current federal estimates. Even if methane weren’t an issue, gas still emits a significant amount of carbon dioxide when burned — roughly 50% less than coal and about 25% less than gasoline or diesel. Those reductions wouldn’t be enough to head off catastrophic climate change at a time when experts at the United Nations say the Earth is heating up faster than ever.

“The world as a whole is going to need to reduce its use of all fossil fuels, gas included, in order to achieve the kinds of emission reductions we need,” said Nathan Matthews, a senior attorney at the Sierra Club. “When we’re building infrastructure now, it’s got to be the infrastructure that’s gonna get us to zero emissions.”

In October, the Texas Tribune and the Center for Public Integrity reported that they spent eight months investigating the scope and impacts of the export boom, analyzing data, interviewing experts and traveling across the Permian to hear from local officials, activists, oil producers and others. The project is part of a collaboration with Newsy and the Associated Press.

Among the findings:

• Climbing production hasn’t boosted local tax revenues fast enough to address all the increased needs that come with it, from crowded classrooms to wrecked roads. Schools, police departments and hospitals are struggling to keep employees lured by better-paying jobs in the oilfield.

• The state often fails to step in when oil and gas operations foul the air. Unpermitted air pollution is higher in West Texas counties than in much of the state, and regulators are giving operators the OK to burn off far more excess natural gas there than was allowed a decade ago.

• The industry is consuming water in an arid region at an unsustainable rate: Permian Basin operators used eight times as much water to frack and drill last year as they did in 2011; the ultimate consequences are unknown because the state doesn’t require companies to disclose basic information that would allow scientists to understand the risks of all this consumption.

The federal government isn’t acting as a backstop. The Trump administration recently moved to weaken a rule requiring companies to control leaks of methane and toxic chemicals from oil and gas wells, along with related equipment.

Now ordinary Americans have no choice but to sue oil companies that have spoiled nature in the residential areas of the country and tightly seal water pipelines. Otherwise, there is no choice but to continue drinking muddy, flammable water from the tap.

 

Author: USA Really