Monday, December 17, 2012

Explosion in Natural Gas Exploration is More Doom than Boom

By Paul E McGinniss

Natural Gas Flare at Oil Well in Nigeria.  Photo via Andrew Berends, director of documentary film Delta Boys. 

Natural Gas business is booming. Across the U.S., the extraction of natural gas (which consists primarily of CH4, methane) is a growth industry. This fast-paced growth is especially driven by the rampant implementation of the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing, referred to as "fracking." It is allowing hungry drillers to tap into previously inaccessible gas trapped miles beneath the ground. According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, the United States will become a net exporter of natural gas by around 2022.
Besides the obvious degradation of the environment from the industrial gas extraction process, and the air and water pollution resulting from the unregulated industry, there are important but perhaps less obvious problems associated with the natural gas boom.

Safe delivery of natural gas is a very serious issue. You need go no further than the fire- ravaged Breezy Point neighborhood of Queens, NY to see how susceptible natural gas pipelines are to damage, especially in super storms, and how dangerous these taken- for- granted pipelines can be. Besides the pipeline-fueled fires in Queens, there were over 1300 storm related gas leaks reported in areas of New Jersey devastated by hurricane Sandy. Fires fueled by gas leaks burned many houses to the ground. reported:

"As the storm triggered a natural gas-fueled fire in the borough of Queen in New York City that destroyed more than 100 homes, as well as natural gas-fueled blazes that struck several locations in New Jersey. Although there was some immediate disagreement about the role of natural gas in the Queens inferno, the
Lehigh Valley Morning Call, citing emergency communications transmissions, confirmed that natural gas did, in fact, fuel the destruction."

Now, if you think the only time to worry about natural gas leaks is when a super storm approaches that could damage pipelines, it's prudent to think again.

According to a November 2102 study by researchers at Boston University and Duke University, the city of Boston is riddled with more than 3,000 leaks from its aging natural-gas pipeline system. “While our study was not intended to assess explosion risks, we came across six locations in Boston where gas concentrations exceeded the threshold above which explosions can occur,” said Nathan Phillips, associate professor in Boston University’s Department of Earth and Environment and co-author of the study.

And Boston is hardly alone when it comes to real danger posed by leaky natural gas infrastructure. Indeed, a November 2012 natural gas explosion in Springfield, Massachusetts injured more than twenty people and damaged almost 4 dozen buildings. The Christian Science Monitor reported: "Such problems appear to be increasing as the nation's network of 2.5 million miles of oil, gas, and other liquid pipelines grows."

There are many examples of natural gas explosions resulting from aging and leaky pipelines. For instance, there was a huge natural gas explosion in Sept. 2010 in San Bruno, CA which killed eight people, injured more than 50 others and destroyed or damaged over 100 homes.

In November 2102, ProPublica reported in Pipelines Explained: How Safe are America’s 2.5 Million Miles of Pipelines?:

"More than half of the nation's pipelines are at least 50 years old. Last year in Allentown Pa., a natural gas pipeline exploded underneath a city street, killing five people who lived in the houses above and igniting a fire that damaged 50 buildings. The pipeline – made of cast iron – had been installed in 1928."

Being blown up by a leaky gas pipeline might be the least of our problems. Consider the silent danger of the potent green house gas (GHG), methane, leaking from pipelines associated with the increasing amount of oil and gas drilling operations around the country. They are spreading like wildfire, pun intended.

When thinking about global warming, most point the finger at CO2 being dumped into the atmosphere as a result of burning fossil fuels. But methane is just as worrisome with regards to global warming and something we need to be seriously concerned about if we want to avoid climate disaster.

According to the Global Methane Initiative, an international public-private initiative that advances cost effective, near-term methane abatement and recovery and use of methane as a clean energy source, natural gas and oil systems account for 22 percent of anthropogenic methane emissions. And, of the GHGs emitted as a result of human activities, methane is the second most important GHG after carbon dioxide.

In February 2012's Bombshell Study: High Methane Emissions Measured Over Gas Field May Offset Climate Benefits of Natural Gas, Think Progress reported how air sampling by NOAA over Colorado finds 4% methane leakage, more than double industry claims:

"When US government scientists began sampling the air from a tower north of Denver, Colorado, they expected urban smog — but not strong whiffs of what looked like natural gas. They eventually linked the mysterious pollution to a nearby natural-gas field, and their investigation has now produced the first hard evidence that the cleanest-burning fossil fuel might not be much better than coal when it comes to climate change.

Led by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Colorado, Boulder, the study estimates that natural-gas producers in an area known as the Denver-Julesburg Basin are losing about 4% of their gas to the atmosphere — not including additional losses in the pipeline and distribution system...... And because methane is some 25 times more efficient than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere, releases of that magnitude could effectively offset the environmental edge that natural gas is said to enjoy over other fossil fuels.”

And it's not just natural gas wells that release methane into the atmosphere. The common flaring of oil wells to release natural gas in the drilling process is a huge source of methane emissions worldwide. The Christian Science Monitor reported: “The United States is posting rapid growth in the waste of natural gas in new oil fields where the fuel is either burned or vented into the atmosphere.

On a positive note, in April 2012 the EPA finalized new standards to reduce harmful air pollution associated with oil and natural gas production. These were the first Federal rules to address air pollution resulting from fracking for Natural Gas. Yet, despite the progress, many think the rules were not strong enough. NRDC said the new EPA rules were “An Important Step Forward, But Communities Still At Risk” :

“These first-ever EPA limits on dangerous air pollution from natural gas fracking wells are a critical step toward protecting our kids, our communities, and our planet,” said Meleah Geertsma, an attorney in Natural Resources Defense Council’s climate and clean air program. “But to fulfill President Obama’s State of the Union pledge to develop these resources ‘without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk,’ the EPA needs to do more to protect people living near oil and gas production facilities.”

Unfortunately, capturing methane was not one of the requirements in the new federal emissions standards set by the EPA. So, methane will continue to spew silently and unregulated from the hundreds of thousands of natural gas wells and oil wells across the USA, not to mention the wells in many other countries throughout the world.

Granted, the new EPA controls meant to curb VOCs and other toxins emitted from oil and gas drilling will minimize, to some extent, the amount of methane going into the atmosphere. The EPA claims methane reductions as a “co-benefit” of the controls that are meant to curb other emissions.

But, according to environmental groups, the methane emission cuts achieved by targeting VOCs and other toxic chemicals pursuant to the new EPA regulations would address only around 10 percent of the methane emissions from the oil and gas industry. Luckily, these environmentalists are petitioning the Department of the Interior (DOI) to set a host of strict emissions controls for cutting releases of the greenhouse gas (GHG) methane associated with oil and gas drilling on federal and tribal lands .

However, there is most disturbing news about methane, which puts real doom and gloom in the gas boom, from the current
Doha Climate Change Conference. A new report, Policy Implications of Warming Permafrost, released by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) gives a chilling warning that methane and CO2 released from the thawing of permafrost, which covers almost a quarter of the northern hemisphere, could significantly amplify global warming should thawing accelerate as expected.

It is urgent that we develop renewable energy resources, slow down drilling for oil and natural gas, curtail excavating coal, reduce the burning of fossil fuels, and stop releasing so much deadly C02 and methane into the atmosphere. If we do not halt global warming, and the northern hemisphere continues to melts, the resulting climate change would be a world catastrophe.

"The release of carbon dioxide and methane from warming permafrost is irreversible: once the organic matter thaws and decays away, there is no way to put it back into the permafrost," said lead author of the UNEP report Kevin Schaefer, from the University of Colorado's National Snow and Ice Data Center. "

If there are any doubts about the real impacts of global warming and climate change, all one has to do is see the haunting film, Chasing Ice, to witness the rapid disappearance of glaciers as heroically documented in the film. If “Chasing Ice” doesn't make you worried and motivate you to become a climate change activist, nothing will.

Copyright 2012 Paul E McGinniss
Paul E McGinniss is The New York Green Advocate. He is a green building consultant and real estate broker in New York. He is pretty much obsessed with all things environment and has lately become a resiliency addict.

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