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April 20th, 2011

The Contradiction and Deep Pockets of Clean, Natural Gas

How much money did it take to convince American consumers that methane gas is clean and natural?

By Rich Bindell

Please bear with me for a moment and read through the following word groupings: Simple, user-friendly astrophysics. Adventurous, adrenaline-pumping stamp collecting. Pure, delicious sewage. You might be skeptical about these examples, particularly that last one. I think you’re right to question whether or not sewage is pure and delicious. Now, try this one: Clean, natural gas. It’s pretty common to see or hear these three words strung together in conversations about energy strategy. But is the idea of clean, natural gas a contradiction in terms?

Most consumers can appreciate the pursuit of a renewable energy source in an efficient and responsible manner. So, when the gas industry beefs up its lobbying presence and invests in an advertising campaign to convince us that its product — methane — is “clean” and “natural,” the odds are in its favor that the message will get across to a large number of people. But some scientists and many consumers are starting to seriously question the promise of clean, natural gas.

Last month, Scientific American suggested that natural gas emissions are not cleaner than coal emissions, and that it shouldn’t be included in the plan to solve global warming. Last week, the New York Times alerted us to a Cornell University study whose main author, Robert Howarth, warns about high percentages of methane leakage caused by natural gas extraction. Howarth also recommends that the government conduct more extensive research before investing more in the natural gas industry.  (You can read the study here.)

But, that’s not exactly what’s happening. The industry has been pushing forward with gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale for quite some time — especially in Pennsylvania — and they are poised to build many new drilling sites in the near future while state and federal governments determine how to regulate the process. This should come as no surprise. We need not look any further than the deep pockets with which the natural gas industry influences public policy.

In the meantime, many consumers feel caught between the promise of a cleaner-burning fuel and the reality of the dangers of extracting it. Every day, I see advertising posters that attempt to reinforce the idea of gas as a clean and natural fuel, as well as highlight the large numbers of people who rely on the natural gas industry every day.

It’s hard not to feel moved by some of the suggestions from the ads, but let’s give it a try.

Questions from the natural gas advertisements:

“Who are the 9.2 million people whose jobs are supported by the natural gas industry?”

“I don’t know all of them by name, but I’ll bet that some of them are among the 15 million Americans who get their drinking water from the Delaware River Basin. They could be in danger if natural gas drilling were to contaminate the basin’s supply.”

Who are the 39 million Americans who’ll cook dinner tonight with natural gas?”

I’m not sure that all of the 39 million Americans would want to eat dinner tonight if they thought that the farms that provided the crops or livestock for that food were affected by contamination from natural gas fracking. If fracking fluid, which contains toxic chemicals, gets into the water, it can get into the food supply too.

“Who are the millions of Americans who own more than 75 percent of oil and natural gas company shares?”

Obviously none of them have met any of the families who are afraid their houses could blow up or whose lives have been ruined by natural gas drilling.

It costs a lot of money to create a clean and natural image for methane. Just as Coke convinced us that it’s the “real thing,” in an effort to get us to “buy the world a Coke,” let’s remember that the gas industry is trying to sell us an idea as much they are an energy product. Their idea just happens to be a contradiction, because there is certainly nothing “clean” about a fuel that contributes to greenhouse gases more than coal, and nothing “natural” about an energy source that can contaminate our drinking water.

Special note:

Just as I finished today’s blog, I learned that a natural gas well is spilling out of control in Canton, Pennsylvania, possibly due to a cracked well casing. The well is owned by Chesapeake Energy Corp., and is located in Bradford County north-central part of the state. Local news station WNEP covered the story, which was picked up by Emma Pullman at Desmogblog and then Huffington Post and Grist. The story is still unfolding as fracking fluid containing contaminated water continues to flow from the well.

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