Increasing reliance on natural gas displaces the market for clean energy and harms human health and the environment in places where production occurs.
Fracking for natural gas damages the land, pollutes water and air, and causes illness in surrounding communities. It is also a major threat to our climate. It is clear that we cannot transition from one fossil fuel to another and expect to see major climate benefits. We need to move beyond natural gas.
- Air: Air pollution is generated at the well site by major truck traffic, diesel generators, gas venting, gas flaring, and leakage of air pollutants. The density of wells in a fracked gas field leads to hundreds of sources of air pollution. Oil and gas operations in the Barnett Shale area of Texas produced more smog during the summer of 2009 than all the motor vehicles in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Rural Sublette County in Wyoming, the scene of 27,000 gas wells, has recorded higher levels of ozone than Houston and Los Angeles.
- Water: Each natural gas well requires millions of gallons of water to conduct the fracking. On average, 10 to 20 percent of the produced water (water, sand, and chemicals) is returned to the surface and must be disposed of, either by injection or surface treatment and discharge into rivers. Most of the produced water stays belowground, where it becomes increasingly toxic. Some of this water returns to the surface over time, while a large percentage -- up to 75 percent -- stays in the wells. All too often, failed well casings lead to irreversible contamination of underground aquifers -- the lifeblood of our homes, farms, and fisheries.
- Climate: Natural gas is also a major threat to our climate. Total greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas are nearly identical to coal, once methane leakage is taken into account -- and newer, more accurate data continues to be collected. Even without accounting for methane emissions, a recent International Energy Agency (IEA) study concluded that a global shift away from coal to natural gas would do little to get us off the path to climate catastrophe. While switching completely to natural gas showed better results than adding more coal to the energy mix, IEA’s analysis shows that the atmosphere would still reach 650 parts per million of CO2 between 2020 and 2060, warming the Earth at least 3.5 degrees Celsius.
- Public Health: The scope of the problems from under-regulated drilling, and a clearer understanding of the total carbon pollution that results from both drilling and burning gas, have made it plain that as we phase out coal, we need to leapfrog over gas whenever possible in favor of truly clean energy. Instead of rushing to see how quickly we can extract natural gas, we should be focusing on using less of it -- and safeguarding our health and environment in the meantime by regulating drilling more rigorously. If we can’t drill safely, then we shouldn’t be drilling at all.
Well-casing failure has been studied by the industry. In 2010, Pennsylvania drilled 1,454 wells, of which 90 failed (6.2 percent). In 2011, 1,937 wells were drilled and 121 failed (6.2 percent). This data -- consistent with the industry’s own figures -- is for new wells, and well casings are more likely to fail with age. Equally alarming is that we did not see a decrease in well failure even after the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) overhauled its well-casing requirements to make them more stringent. Additionally, ProPublica identified more than 1,000 cases of water contamination near drilling sites documented by courts, states, and local governments around the country prior to 2009. In 2010, Pennsylvania’s DEP cited 451 wells with 1,544 violations that harmed water quality.