Natural Gas: Bridge Fuel and Polluter

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

It’s damn cold out and it’s a great time to have plenty of cleaner-burning natural gas on hand to keep everyone warm and businesses running. That's the main argument right now for bringing more natural gas to the region.

During the past two winters, the Northeast has run low on natural gas. Prices spiked as power plants struggled to meet demand. The shortages prompted New England governors to collectively support bringing more natural gas to the region, mostly by expanding existing pipelines and increasing the pressure on the natural gas running through those pipelines. Seven pipeline projects have been proposed for New England, and those plans have met resistance from environmentalists who foresee problems with chemical leaks, fires and explosions.

They also see more natural gas delivered from Pennsylvania and the Midwest as supporting the controversial natural-gas extraction method known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Fracking has raised a host of concerns relating to air and water pollution, which led New York to recently ban the drilling method. The process also has drawn attention to the notion that natural gas represents a "bridge fuel" to an era of significantly reduced fossil-fuel use. As a bridge fuel, supporters say it serves as a transition fuel to cutting carbon dioxide emissions and curtailing climate change.

This concept has been endorsed by many in Congress, including its biggest climate hawk, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. Whitehouse, who gives regular “Time to Wake Up" speeches in the Senate about the need to act on climate change, sees natural gas as a cleaner fossil fuel than coal and oil but only if it’s extracted safely.

Here is his argument:

Natural gas releases fewer carbon emissions compared to other fuels when it’s burned to create electricity or heat homes and businesses. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, when natural gas is ignited at the “burner tip” it releases nearly 50 percent less CO2 than coal and 27 percent less than oil.

The fracking boom has created jobs and significant wealth. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce reports that mining shale gas has created hundreds of thousands of jobs across the Midwest and Colorado and is adding hundreds of billions of dollars to the national economy.

“The economic advantage of natural gas has been undeniable and part of it has helped lift us back out of the great Bush recession,” Whitehouse told ecoRI News.

Whitehouse acknowledges that methane leakage during fracking and transporting of natural gas can offset its cleaner-burning benefits. But, he said, “I don’t think there is yet solid information as to how much fracking and how much leakage erode the burner-tip value of natural gas.”

In September, Gina McCarthy, head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), announced her intention on imposing rules on controlling methane leakage and water pollution. Little in the way of regulations has come from the EPA since, but Whitehouse has taken on the pollution issues. Last fall, he sent a letter to President Obama urging “swifter action” from the EPA “to quickly adopt national standards to reduce methane pollution from oil and gas production, prevent waste, and protect our public health and environment.”

Whitehouse was one of 11 senators urging the president to issue stronger pollution standards at new fracking wells on public land. His carbon tax bill introduced in November includes a section on methane leakage.

Fossil-fuel mafia
During an environmental conference in Providence in September, Whitehouse spoke of the other pollution from the fracking and fossil-fuel industry: the pollution of the democratic process. He referred to dark money, “phony-baloney science” and front organizations “in what probably, collectively is the largest and most complicated and sophisticated propaganda campaign in American history. And that is one of the reasons that we’ve had trouble getting to grips with our climate problem. And that is the adversary that most of us seeking to solve this problem must contend with.”

The keynote speaker that day, Jeff Goodell, author of "Big Coal: The Dirty Secret behind America’s Energy Future," noted big money is used by the fossil-fuel industry to fund dubious research about climate change in order to stall air pollution rules.

“It’s a very powerful apparatus at work," he said.

Goodell told ecoRI News the fossil-fuel industry’s influence in politics, which he called the "fossil-fuel mafia," is helping promote the bridge-fuel concept while too many questions go unanswered about pollution and methane leakage.

In the end, he said, it’s all about profits. “The powerful thing is and the reason that this is happening is that people are making a shitload of money," Goodell said.

Thus, the bridge-fuel concept endures.

“Clearly, it is a bridge to a future in a way,” Goodell said. “But the question is, ‘How long is that bridge? What will that bridge cost? And shouldn’t we maybe be building another kind of bridge? Or just go directly to that future?’ Because there’s no question that natural gas will have an end, just as every other fossil fuel has an end.”

New York banned fracking after health and conservation officials expressed concerns about pollution to water, air and soil, as well as a lack of credible health studies and proof of public safety during the extraction process.

The effect of that ban hasn't yet led to changes in New England. The bridge-fuel concept shouldn’t mean a short-term rush to build “long-lived infrastructure around natural gas,” argues the environmental advocacy group Conservation Law Foundation. New natural gas infrastructure increases the dependence on fossil fuels and delays the transition to renewable energy, according to the CLF.