By Leah Zerbe, online editor for Rodale.com, a daily health and environmental news site.
A leading fuel life-cycle analysis expert says turning to hydraulic fracturing for natural gas as a major national energy source would be “disastrous.”
As certified organic farmer Greg Swartz spoke to me on the phone last week from his front porch in picturesque Damascus, Pennsylvania, he lamented over the big natural gas drilling rig staring him down just 0.31 miles from his home at Willow Wisp Farm. It’s not just his home but also a farm that provides a diverse array of healthy vegetables for hundreds of families in a way that keeps toxic contaminants out of the soil and drinking water supply of his neighbors. The water he uses to grow food comes from the Delaware River watershed and is among the cleanest in the entire country. This watershed provides clean drinking water for nearly 16 million people.
Natural gas drillers want to mix some of that clean water resource with hundreds of toxic and sometimes cancer-causing chemicals in order to inject it at high pressure (known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking) deep into the ground to release deep natural gas deposits. So far, more than 200,000 acres surrounding Swartz’s farm are under lease to natural gas companies. Not exactly the prime place to grow organic veggies.
The industrial sight looming before him in such a pretty, rural area is ugly, he says, but the eyesore component is the least of his worries. If regulators allow the fossil fuel operation to move forward beyond exploratory well status and into actual hydraulic fracturing mode in his watershed, he will be out of business, and the local community and neighboring New York state will lose access to high-quality organic food. “We may be forced out of business because I can’t in good conscience sell food in an area that’s contaminated or potentially contaminated,” says Swartz. “I can’t feed that to my family, either.”
Click here for a preview of the documentary on fracking, Gasland.
Other heavily fracked areas out West, such as Colorado, Wyoming, and Texas, and now different parts of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, have suffered serious air and water contamination as a result of this resource-draining fuel extraction method. Exploding wellheads, worker fatalities, flammable tap water, toxic flowback spewing into a state forest. We’re starting to know the drill.
But what is most alarming about this drilling practice, which is exempt from virtually all public health laws meant to protect us, is that there’s a push to embrace it as our country’s new clean energy, or at the very least, as a cleaner bridge fuel that will hold us over until we decide to start using solar and wind on a grander scale. Are we really prepared to trade our domestic clean water, air, and national food supply in order to keep fossil fuel companies in business a few more decades?
(More info: What’s the fuss about fracking?)
Meanwhile, biochemist and fuel life-cycle analysis expert Robert Howarth, PhD, professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell University, says that a national shift toward natural gas would be “disastrous.”
His team’s preliminary research is finding that natural gas fracking is as energy intensive as coal, long regarded as the dirtiest form of energy. His major concern is over the amount of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that unavoidably seeps into the atmosphere from drilling sites. There’s virtually no one policing the methane blowing off into the atmosphere from these sites. “There is no national reporting or monitoring system,” he says. “Houses are blowing up in Pennsylvania. That’s probably the tip of the iceberg in terms of methane leaking into the atmosphere.”
Howarth’s research has found that a 5 percent leakage rate over a 20-year period equates to methane being 72-fold more portent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. In terms of energy, he contends, “It’s a lousy alternative.”
“It’s being sold as something that’s good for the fight against global warming. That’s not true,” Howarth explains. “Instead, we’re flooding the market with cheap gas that is every bit as bad [as coal and oil] and could be aggravating global warming.
The Environmental Protection Agency has kicked off a 2-year study to investigate natural gas’ effect on drinking water, but the natural gas industry contends that the process is safe, and no further studies are needed. Drilling continues in many parts of the country despite the fact that there have been no long-term studies looking at its effect on human or environmental health.
“It’s unregulated. It’s crazy to push ahead with this industrial activity without better federal control and oversight,” he adds