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This State Runs on Clean Natural Gas

by Published on
Natural Gas Terminal in Houston

As the oil slick blooms across the Gulf, you are going to start hearing calls that we switch to a safer, cleaner form of energy. Something that isn’t going to poison our water, kill wildlife or turn the land to waste.

Something like, say, “clean natural gas.”

This is already happening. In a May 4 Newsweek interview, Governor Bill Ritter of Colorado talked about how America should follow his state’s model and transfer to natural gas:

One thing we did in Colorado was transition from coal to natural gas as a way to think about using a domestic supply of fuel. And it’s cleaner-burning. If you take the inefficient coal plants in the U.S. and transition those over a short amount of time to natural gas, you can do away with the [pollutants] and the mercury.

They almost always call it “natural gas”—as opposed to oil, which we build in factories—and sometimes they go further and call it “clean natural gas, ” as in “This Bus Runs On.” And when you see those ads on the sides of buses, they are usually written in green, promising health and environmental well-being.

The trouble is, that’s kind of a lie.

I just walked out of Josh Fox’s GasLand, a muckraking documentary about how natural gas will rot your brain and kill your cattle. Fox’s story opens with a letter from a natural gas company, offering him thousands of dollars an acre to lease his property in the Delaware Water Gap for drilling. They promise that it’s totally safe, that it won’t disturb his land or pollute the water.

But on a cross-country road trip to see the effects of the drilling, Fox meets a lot of people who start to make that claim seem questionable. In Pennsylvania, in Wyoming, in Colorado, he meets family after family who tells him the same story: We took the money. We leased our land. They started drilling. And then our water turned to poison and we started getting sick.

We say that you ‘drill’ for gas, as though there were massive underground pockets that we just had to tap into, like oil, and it would spurt forth. But actually the drilling is only a tiny part of the process. Gas is locked up in rock and shale. To get it out, you have to break the rock.

And one very common way of breaking the rock, which Fox takes on in GasLand, is called hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking.’ You drill a hole down into the gas doposit, then you pump in between 400 and 600 tanker trucks full of water and toxic chemicals into the hole to fracturing the rock and release the gas. Only about half of this toxic stew comes back out, and what does comes back dirty, filled with known carcinogens and volatile hydrocarbons and heavy metals and ozone causing chemicals and all manner of stuff you really, really don’t want going into the water table. So then you have these hundreds of tanks of toxic stew to get rid of. To get rid of it you pour it into a pit and let it evaporate into the atmosphere. Problem solved.

We don’t actually know what’s in this ‘fracking fluid’ that’s disappearing into the ground, because the industry has successfully argued that it’s proprietary information. But they assure us that we don’t need to worry about it, because it’s totally safe. How safe? In 2005, in one of those periodic Congressional cave-ins to corporate power that reminds you just who owns this country, the natural gas industry succeeded in getting themselves exempted from the Clean Water, Clean Air, and Safe Drinking Water Acts. (A former Halliburton CEO named Richard Cheney, was apparently instrumental in getting it through Congress). Since then, there has been basically no regulation by the EPA of drilling’s effects on the environments or the people and animals who live in it.

Against this, we have family after family in GasLand lighting their taps on fire (see video at side). Taps pouring out water the natural gas analysts said was safe to drink.

Now, I’m willing to concede that there is another side here—that Big Corporate Gas is such an obvious target that Fox doesn’t have to work very hard to convince us that they’re pillaging the land for profit. This is, after all, the Pocahantas/Fern Gully/Avatar narrative, and we should always be suspicious when muckraking journalism jibes so nicely with popular myth.

But man, industry spokespeople don’t make it easy to give them any benefit of the doubt. According to industry shill Dr. Michael Economides of Forbes.com, this is just a case of anti-corporate bias against natural gas:

Yet, a small cabal of special interest groups opposes the resource and, consequently, has sought publicity to spread their dubious beliefs. Case in point: a scene from the upcoming documentary Gasland, which features a man lighting his faucet water on fire and making the ridiculous claim that natural gas drilling is responsible for the incident.

Because, you know, the anti-energy lobby is just so freakin’ powerful. Those wind energy lobbyists can get nasty. The fact that those people could light their faucets on fire after we drilled for flammable materials in their backyard doesn’t prove we caused it. That’s the classic fallacy of post hoc ergo notourproblemoc. Learned that one in logic.

Corporations aren’t inherently evil, and the few industry people Fox talks to are right in that this country does need energy. The problem is that as long as there is an incentive to make money by engaging in socially toxic behavior, whether by dumping your fracking fluid into creeks, or by NINA loans, or by failing to include a remote shut-off in your deepwater oil rig, somebody is going to do it.

This, after all, is the promise of capitalism and the entrepreneurial impulse: that if a way of making money exists, somebody will find it, just as ecology argues that every environmental niche gets filled. This isn’t a critique of capitalism so much as it’s a critique of human nature and an argument for why, when there’s an incentive to screw people, that nature needs to be, oh, what’s the word I’m looking for . . .

Regulated.

It’s not clear what will happen there. In 2009, several Democrats introduced a bill into Congress to remove natural gas companies’ exemption from the Clean Water Act and expose them to regulation. Now it’s up in the air—regulation is, of course, as un-American as unfettered drilling is red, white, and blue apple pie patriotism.

But regardless of what happens, know this. If you look at a map of United States natural gas development, much of Texas is colored red. All of South Texas. All of West Texas. Much of East Texas. Dallas and Fort Worth. As the devastation of the Gulf gets worse and the call for more “clean natural gas” rises up from a nation thirsty for guilt-free energy, that demand will fall largely on us.

And when they say that this energy is clean and natural, this is what they mean.