Natural gas environmental impact tied to economics

Folks have lots of questions to ask about the environmental impact of natural gas fracking, but the more important questions to ask may have to do with the economics. Ultimately, the two lines of questioning are intertwined.

(Related: “The Great Shale Gas Rush”)

I reached out on Twitter for questions yesterday before I moderated a panel at the Aspen Environmental Forum called “Methane as Methadone.” In other words, should we be using natural gas to help us withdraw from our addiction to the “hard stuff” of energy—coal?

Most of proposed questions I received—understandably enough—had to do with worries over the impact to drinking water from hydraulic fracturing. But one person, @Robbclifton, asked whether all this new natural gas would affect prices—presumably by making it cheaper. “If it’s going to be bad for the planet, we at least need some consumer benefit,” he said.

Well, without commenting on his premise, the message I got on prices was that while natural gas is cheap today, it won’t be tomorrow. And perhaps it shouldn’t be so cheap, if we really want it to be a “bridge” to a cleaner energy future. Panelist David Todd, vice president for onshore gas production at Shell, had a provocative insight about the price of natural gas. At $4 per million BTU—the current low level where it has been hovering for quite some time—producers aren’t making money, he said.

The producers that keep producing do so because their leases require them to do drill within a certain time frame or lose their stake to the land. But Todd told the Aspen attendees that he believed the inevitable working of the market would ultimately cause the natural gas price to rise. The current low price would drive some producers out of the market, supply will drop and the price inevitably will increase.

I couldn’t help thinking how this related to the other, more pervasive questions about natural gas drilling and water and air pollution. Todd was adamant that his company took steps to ensure well integrity, to protect groundwater against methane migration into drinking water.

(Related: “Methane on Tap: Study Links Pollution to Gas Drilling”)

For decades, he noted, the industry has had “sour gas” operations—natural gas mixed with hydrogen sulfide—which required zero leakage systems, since hydrogen sulfide is highly toxic. It is possible, he said, to build zero leakage systems for “sweet” gas as well.

(Related: “New Brunswick Seeks Natural Gas, and a Safer Way”)

But with so many producers of all different sizes doing natural gas fracking today – there were about 70 different companies operating last year in Pennsylvania – how certain can we be that they are all using best practices, ESPECIALLY when the price of gas is so low to be unprofitable? It seems the only answer is regulation and enforcement of those rules.

I will mention a few other points from the natural gas discussion. Marcia McNutt, director of the U.S. Geological Survey, noted several issues her science agency is tracking regarding natural gas fracking:

  • Water issues: The impact on water availability to humans and wildlife in terms of quantity and quality.
  • Induced seismicity: Triggered earthquakes associated with reduction of confining stress on faults when fluids are injected.
  • Landscape modification: Secondary impacts to water quality through enhanced sedimentation to streams, and effects on wildlife migration.

Finally, there was discussion of the lifecycle impact of the natural gas fracking process, especially in light of the paper by Cornell University researchers suggesting that due to fugitive methane emissions, the carbon footprint of natural gas may be worse than that of coal. But McNutt said scientists in the USGS have identified a fatal flaw in the paper—the assumption that the rush of gas produced when a well is completed is vented directly to the atmosphere. That gas is typically flared, meaning the Cornell paper dramatically overstates the fugitive methane emissions, she said.

I’m hoping that USGS will publish its analysis. As we’ve read on this blog, (“Peak Oil, Peak Water, Peak Resources, Peak Planet: Building a Currency for the 21st Century“), and have heard repeatedly at Aspen, understanding the data on the lifecycle impact of different choices is crucial to tackling climate change. Lord Kelvin’s rule applies here; if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.



David Todd admitted “we use a ton of water” in fracking and claimed that nearly 100 percent of that water is being recycled at Marcellus?

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Marianne Lavelle, energy editor for National Geographic Digital Media, has spent more than two decades covering environment, business, climate and policy in Washington, D.C. Previously, she spearheaded a project tracking climate change lobbying for the nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism organization The Center for Public Integrity. Before that, she was a senior writer at U.S. News and World Report magazine, where she wrote the Beyond the Barrel blog. Before joining U.S. News, she created a beat on federal regulation for The National Law Journal, and led a team of reporters in a series on environmental justice, “Unequal Protection," winner of the George Polk Award and numerous other honors.