Natural gas: Fighting over fracking

A new Cornell University study has thrown the reputation of natural gas as a clean alternative to fossil fuels into doubt.

Until recently, nearly everyone loved natural gas, said Tom Zeller Jr. in The New York Times. Environmentalists viewed it as a “clean burning” alternative to dirty fossil fuels like coal and oil. And after a century’s worth of reserves were found locked in the vast Marcellus Shale formation stretching from Tennessee to New York, Congress and the White House embraced natural gas as a “crucial component of America’s energy future.” But shale gas’s “clean-and-green reputation” is in trouble. A new Cornell University study has concluded that natural gas has a larger “carbon footprint” than either coal or oil, because gas wells and pipes leak vast amounts of planet-warming methane into the atmosphere. There are also growing concerns about the “fracking” process used to create new wells, says David Biello in ScientificAmerican​.com. The mixture of water and toxic chemicals injected underground in the fracking process can contaminate groundwater; some homeowners’ water taps “literally spout flames.”

Shale-gas production does need to clean up its act, said Bryan Walsh in But natural gas is far less polluting than coal, which releases mercury, sulfur, and particles when burned. An estimated 13,200 Americans died as a result of air pollution from coal plants in 2010, and 10 percent of those deaths occurred in Pennsylvania—“the heart of shale-gas land.” So while Cornell’s gas-damning findings are troubling, coal is still “the No. 1 environmental enemy.” No, it’s not, said Steven Hayward in The Weekly Standard. Cheap and plentiful natural gas is now the green movement’s main foe for the simple reason that it makes “expensive wind and solar power even less cost competitive.” That’s why environmentalists are desperately trying to derail the shale-gas industry with wildly exaggerated complaints about contaminated drinking water.

The complaints are real, said Andrew Reinbach in, which is why “public opinion is turning against fracking.” From Wyoming to New York, farmers and other home­owners are reporting horror stories about contaminated wells and rivers. Some local governments have banned fracking until environmental regulators look into its impact on drinking water. Legislators are right to put on the brakes, said the Philadelphia Daily News in an editorial. “If the short-term choice is between undrinkable water and a few more years of high gas prices and foreign oil, we’ll take the latter.”

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