The Insidious Side of Natural Gas

Posted: July 6, 2011 by earthfirstdurango in direct action, environmental justice, fracking, oil & gas, resistance
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By Raging Yeti, Earth First! Durango

Despite the rhetoric of many mainstream environmental organizations and many “liberal environmentalists,” natural gas is not a clean energy, especially when the production process is considered in full.  Like most commodities generated in the global corporate capitalist culture, natural gas is consumed regularly without much knowledge of where it is produced, how it is produced, or the deleterious effects it has on local people and local environments.  Natural gas, like many commodities we consume, seems pleasantly ubiquitous, and without consequence.

In this short article, I will outline the insidious side of natural gas, leaving ample room for the reader to pursue this investigation further.  I will sketch out four themes subtitled below about each of which a book could be written.

Criminogenic Corporate Gas Producers

In the oil and gas industry corporate crime is rampant as it is in all corporate sectors.  In fact, corporate crime kills more people and costs taxpayers more money than all street-level crime combined.  What makes this fact so insidious is that convicted corporate criminals can go right on offending because, as Baron Thurlow so eloquently noted, “corporations have no soul to punish and no body to incarcerate.”  I would like to add to this observation that we have no valid legal system representing nonhuman and human life against the corporate murders of our planet.  This is why our planet needs engaged and enraged human agents.

As of 2009, the top ten US natural gas producers were: BP, Anadarko Petroleum, XTO Energy, Chesapeake Energy, Devon Energy, ConocoPhillips, Enccana Corp, Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Williams Cos Inc. ExxonMobil has recently bought XTO energy, making it the largest producers of natural gas in the U.S.  If you were to Google any one of these companies with the terms “civil and criminal fines” behind their names, you would find numerous examples of chronic law breaking behavior ranging from insider trading, to bribery, to numerous different types of violations of the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act, to violations of OHSA safety standards leading to worker injury and death.

Take, for example, BP, one of the greatest perpetrators of ecocide on the planet.  In October 2007, the Anchorage Daily News reported that “BP agreed to pay $50 million for a felony Clean Air Act violation that killed 15 people and injured more than 170 people” in 2005 at a Texas refinery.  The paper also reported that BP paid “$303 million in connection with price manipulation of the lower 48 propane market” and another $20 million on a federal misdemeanor for spilling “an estimated 201,000 gallons of oil” in “the largest oil spill ever on the North Slope” in March 2006.  Add to BP’s criminal rap sheet the Gulf of Mexico Deep Water Horizon explosion, which took 11 human lives and created the largest marine oil spill in history, taking uncounted numbers of marine and avian life.  Only multinational corporations and nation-states can avoid incarceration for murder and ecocide.

Despite the multitude of malevolent crimes against landbases, humans and nonhuman life, multinational oil and gas producers are notorious for buying/owning our so-called federal and state representatives.   It is obvious we cannot trust multinational corporations to uphold the law, so why should we trust them to do anything, let alone produce safe and clean energy? In 2005, Vice President Dick Cheney, former CEO of Halliburton (a company with an incredible rap sheet), was instrumental in getting the oil and gas industry exempted from disclosure sections of the Safe Drinking Water Act, and numerous other exemptions from the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, CERCLA (superfund), and the Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act.  Other than just being a Dick, why would Dick seek exemptions from all these federal laws designed to protect our landbases?  What is the natural gas industry hiding from the public?

In a recent letter written to the EPA by three U.S. representatives, it was asserted that 12 “fracking companies injected more than 32 million gallons of diesel fuel into the ground in 19 states between 2005 and 2009.  And they did it without asking for or receiving permission from environmental regulators in those states.”  The concern over diesel fuel is that it contains benzene, a carcinogen having other deleterious health effects,  “which has been detected in water supplies near drilling facilities across the country.”  Federal legislators Waxman, Markey, and DeGette, allege that oil and gas companies broke the law by violating the 2005 Energy Policy Act, which states that hydraulic fracturing using diesel fuel is subject to regulation by the EPA under the Safe Drinking Water Act.   The industry did not deny that the EPA had the authority to regulate diesel fuel in fracking under the Safe Drinking Water Act, but claimed there are no rules in place to regulate the use of diesel fuel in hydraulic fracturing.   Halliburton, BJ Services, and Schlumberger, the three largest drilling contractors, voluntarily agreed to stop using diesel fuel in hydraulic fracturing in coalbed methane formations in 2003, and “the republican-led congress wrote in an exception, the so-called ‘Halliburton Loophole,’ into the 2005 Energy Policy Act, which stated that hydraulic fracturing could not be regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act.”  However, “the use of diesel fuel for fracking would still qualify for regulation” under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Despite a “voluntary handshake agreement” stating the industry would not use diesel fuel and a legal exception, Halliburton used 7.2 million gallon of diesel fuel and BJ Services injected 11,555,538 gallon of diesel fuel into the ground between 2005 and 2009.  The gas industry is challenging the federal legislator’s claim that they violated the law.  Industry is arguing that there were no regulations in place despite their agreement to not use diesel fuel in fracking. In fact, 32 million gallons of diesel fuel was used in 19 states, of which half was injected in Texas, and one million gallons or more was used in the following states: Oklahoma 3.3 million gallons; North Dakota 3.1 million gallons; Louisiana 2.9 million gallons; Wyoming 2.9 million gallons; and Colorado 1.3 million gallons.  It is difficult to believe or construe the oil and gas industry as anything other than a sociopathic criminogenic operation.

The Hidden Secrets of Hydraulic Fracturing   

Nothing exposes the myth of “clean” natural gas more than understanding the production process of natural gas from various geological formations.  In the West the majority of natural gas is taken from coalbed reservoirs and in the East from various shale formations. Extracting methane gas from geological formations requires a particular type of technology known in the oil and gas industry as hydraulic fracturing or fracking.  Hydraulic fracturing is a technology based on high-pressure injection of water, sand and various other hazardous chemicals into a particular geological formation.  With extreme pressures the water, sand and hazardous chemicals injected in the well bore cause the geological formation thousands of feet below to fracture, allowing the gas to escape via the fracture, which is held open by the sand.   The entire natural gas production process requires chemicals.  Chemicals are injected from the beginning of the drilling process and used throughout to expedite the process.

Hydraulic fracturing requires an incredible amount of water.  The type of geological formation and the depth of the well determine the amount of water used per well.  In the coalbed seams in the West anywhere from 50,000 to 350,000 gallons of various stimulation and fracturing fluids may be used, and in the Marcellus shale in the Eastern U.S., an average of 4.5 million gallons of water per deep shale gas well.  According to an EPA study cited by Earthworks “[s]ome of the fracturing fluids are pumped out of the well into surface pits or tanks during the process of extracting oil, gas and any produced water, but studies have shown that anywhere from 20%-40% of fracking fluids may remain underground.”  When traveling through parts of Wyoming it is not uncommon to see open pits of produced water containing fracking chemicals.  Produced water is water mixed with fracking chemicals that must be pumped out of the well because it interferes with the production of natural gas.

Two very important consequences of hydraulic fracturing are that 20 to 40 percent of the hydraulic fracturing fluids, which contain hazardous chemicals, remain underground.  The second consequence is that “fracturing fluids in coal can penetrate into surrounding formations…when fracturing ceases and production resumes, these chemicals may not be entirely pumped back out of the coalbed methane well, and…therefore might be available to migrate through the aquifer.”   In short, 20% to 40% of the hazardous chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing may remain in the geological formations and in those geological formations that are more permeable there is a potential for these chemical to migrate into drinkable aquifers.

One of the most serious consequences of this process has been the contamination of drinking wells and underground aquifers.   Earthworks reports that in August 2006, “a well blowout forced the evacuation of more than 25 homes” in Clark Wyoming.  “After three days of uncontrollable releases totaling 8 million cubic feet of methane and vaporized drilling fluids, the well was ultimately brought under control and residents re-entered their homes.  Wyoming’s Department of Environmental Quality is now monitoring a plume of groundwater contamination that includes benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, xylene, and bis(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate.”  (Visit www.mineralpolicy.org/WYtoxics.cfm).  There have been many other spills recorded on the East coast as well, especially in Pennsylvania.  In Colorado between 2002 and 2006, there were 924 spills of chemicals and waste of more than 5 gallons recorded by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.  Twenty percent of these spills contaminated water, while 14 percent contaminated ground water.  (Visit www.mineralspolicy.org/COtoxics.cfm).  The documentaries Gas Land and Split Estate interview several people whose health has been affected by the hazardous chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing either through contaminated water wells or through inhalation of fumes from nearby holding ponds of wastewater from the hydraulic fracturing process.  Despite all this factual evidence of harm, industry hacks claim there have been no documented instances of groundwater contamination or impact as a result of hydraulic fracturing.  The oil and gas industry is notorious for buying out and then silencing its victims as illustrated in the documentary Split Estate.

The natural gas production process also creates major air pollution problems.  In addition to escaping methane, other fumes from mobile and stationary sources, which include diesel fuel and regular fuel, produce nitrogen oxide, which mixes with solar radiation to create ground level ozone.   Ozone in the stratosphere is good, but ozone in the troposphere is hazardous to human and nonhuman life.   When ground level ozone and particulate matter, especially less than 2.5 microns combine, they create serious respiratory distress for those who are chronically exposed.  It is a know fact that some large gas field production operations located throughout the west increase ground level ozone.  And it is a fact that the heavy truck traffic associated with natural gas production from water hauling, to the transportation of drilling equipment on gravel roads, generates huge amounts of particulate matter.   Consistent exposure to ozone and particulate matter (hence all those people who live around large active gas fields) increases the likelihood of developing asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, especially for children.

When the entire natural gas production process is considered natural gas is not so clean.  In fact, because the natural gas production process involves the use of hazardous chemicals near fresh water and fresh water aquifers, natural gas is neither clean nor healthy.  The chemicals used in natural gas production have very serious deleterious health effects and they are considered proprietary property to be used at the discretion of criminogenic corporations.

The Health Effects of Hydraulic Fracturing Chemicals

Fracking chemicals are currently treated as proprietary property of the various industries, meaning that the industry does not have to disclose the chemicals they use in the natural gas production process.  Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TDEX) found online at www.endocrinedisruption.org has done the difficult work of discovering many of the names of these chemicals.  TEDX collected their data from various sources such as Environmental Impact Statements, Environmental Assessment Statements, accident and spill reports and information obtained from the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service, state agencies and some information from the industry itself.   Because of the proprietary nature of fracking chemicals, it is virtually impossible to identify all the chemicals used in the fracking process.  TEDX has identified 980 products associated with natural gas production, which contain 649 different chemicals.  After identifying the products, TEDX researchers found what are called Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) for each of the products.   These sheets are designed to help assist those working with these products to know the basic contents of the product in cases of accidental spills or injuries related to the product. Unfortunately, most U.S. laws have as their primary beneficiary the corporation with the secondary beneficiary being the consumer and the tertiary benefactor being the worker.  In short, the majority of the MSDSs do not contain full disclosure of the product’s composition nor do they disclose specific ingredients of each product.   Thus, for example, the MSDS can be purposely vague by listing an ingredient simply as a biocide without telling you the specific ingredients of the biocide.   Information about specific chemicals can be collected through Chemical Abstract Service (CAS) numbers.  The American Chemical Society, for the purpose of identifying chemical elements, compounds, isomers, polymers, etc., has assigned them unique number sequences, creating the CAS system.  In short, the CAS system provides a universal identity for specific chemicals.

Out of the 649 chemicals identified by TDEX, only 362 have CAS numbers.  Based on 12 health effect categories, TEDX found that “78% of the chemicals are associated with skin, eye or sensory organ effects, respiratory effects and gastrointestinal or liver effects.  The brain and nervous system can be harmed by 55% of the chemicals…other affects, including cancer, organ damage, and harm to the endocrine system, may not appear for months or years later.  Between 22% and 47% of the chemicals were associated with these possibly longer-term health effects.”

When the identified chemicals were evaluated for pathways of exposure, TEDX found that “of 210 chemicals 58% are water soluble while 131 chemicals 36% are volatile; in other words, they can be airborne.”  The health effects from these pathways of exposure are cause for alarm.

Of these volatile chemicals over 93% can harm the eyes, skin, sensory organs, respiratory tract, gastrointestinal tract or liver.  Compared with the soluble chemicals, far more of these chemicals (86%) can cause harm to the brain and nervous system.  Seventy-two percent of the volatile chemicals can harm the cardiovascular system and blood, and 66% can harm the kidneys.  Overall, the volatile chemicals produce a different profile with higher percentages than the water-soluble chemicals.  Because they can be inhaled, swallowed, and also reach the skin, the potential for exposure to volatile chemicals is greater.

It is important to note that these chemicals are even more likely to effect untold numbers of wildlife, which cannot read signs warning them of hazardous evaporation ponds or hazardous airborne chemicals.

I have heard the industry claim on numerous occasions that fracking chemicals are nothing more than the chemicals found in household cleaners.  I am not sure what their point is because most of these chemicals are hazardous to our health as well unless you are using nontoxic household cleaners.  Of course, this is just industry dribble, because the overwhelming majority of these chemicals are not used in household products simply because of their toxicity.  One can find a chemical inventory listing all the identified chemicals used in fracking at www.endocrinedisruption.com/chemicals.multistate.php.    Compare these lists with your household cleaners.

Federal legislation (Frack Act) has been proposed, requiring the industry to provide full disclosure of the chemicals used in the fracking process.  Of course, the oil and gas industry is reluctant to provide full disclosure because it would open them up to full liability if these chemicals were to be later identified in our well water, underground aquifers, or municipal water systems.   And, as we all know, industry will not allow the legislature to hold them accountable for contaminating our environment.  On a deeper and even more absurd level why would any sane people allow the criminal corporate class of their society to inject any hazardous chemicals into their landbase?

Natural gas is now being touted as a transition fuel, and it is increasingly being used for electric power generation and as a fuel to power automobiles of the future, two things we need far less of in this culture.   Even if we are using natural gas to heat and cook with we need to consider that it is a greenhouse gas, and it is a finite resource.

Climate Change and the Natural Gas Contribution

The year 2010 was an interesting one from the standpoint of anyone paying attention to the weather.  As climate change scientist have been predicting since the 1980s, our weather is becoming more extreme and unpredictable.  Extreme flooding, extreme drought, and extreme winter have spread to all four corners of the globe.  Extreme flooding in Pakistan led to 20 million people being displaced.  Extreme drought with record heat in Russia caused intense forest fires, choking and killing thousands of people in Russia this summer.  Unprecedented winter storms in Europe and the U.S. suggest that our weather is much more than an anomalous bleep on the radar.  In fact, the weather patterns, which are toppling previous climate records, are exactly what climate scientists have been saying would happen when our carbon levels started increasing.  The extreme shifts that are beginning to occur in our climate are threatening the stability of global food production.   In fact, food is becoming scarce around the world, and it is a direct result of climate disruption.  The type of sporadic climate disruption we are seeing is more than a natural cycle; it is a result of anthropogenic sources of carbon dioxide.

The U.S. government in cahoots with the oil and gas industry is preparing to create the framework of our next great addiction—natural gas.  With recent discoveries of natural gas in Texas, New York and Pennsylvania, and, of course, throughout the west, U.S. energy policy is being built around the belief that natural gas is a cleaner, transition fuel.  But just how much cleaner is natural gas?   And what type of transition are we talking about?

Recent EPA research suggests that pollution caused by the full cycle of natural gas production is not as low as once thought.   It is often touted by the natural gas industry that their product is 50% cleaner than coal, but these estimates, as one would expect from an industry not known for its veracity, are too good to be true.  Industries estimates are only vaguely true if we consider emission from the smokestack or tailpipe, but when you consider the production process emissions are much higher.  The EPA’s new analysis doubles the estimated amount of emissions of methane gas that leaks from loose pipe fittings and from the venting that occurs from individual gas wells.  “Calculations from some gas-field emissions jumped by several hundred percent.  Methane levels from the hydraulic fracturing of shale gas were 9,000 times higher than previously reported.”   When these new estimates were considered, natural gas may be only 25% cleaner than coal, perhaps even less.

According to the EPA, seepage from pipes, valves, and methane venting from individual gas wells is equivalent to the annual emissions of 35 million automobiles each year.  Keep in mind that methane is a more potent gas than carbon dioxide by a factor of 21 times, which means that a ton of methane is equivalent to 21 tons of carbon dioxide.  The 21 times more potent factor that was calculated by the EPA was over 100 years but some scientists argue that methane emission impacts should be calculated over a shorter time period because methane degrades quicker than carbon dioxide.  Some scientists believe that methane’s climate effect should be calculated over 20 years, which would increase its potency by 72 times more than carbon dioxide.  In short, one ton of methane would be equivalent to 72,000 tons of carbon dioxide.  When we consider the full cycle of natural gas production it becomes obvious that it is neither a clean fuel nor a good transition fuel, whatever it is we are supposed to be transitioning to.

Herein lies the rub, we cannot continue to live the way we do.  There is no transition fossil fuel that is safe or clean, especially if our choice is to continue living the way we do in industrial society.  The fossil fuel extravaganza is coming to an end by inevitable scarcity and by irreversible climate instability.  Yet, U.S. energy policy is moving in the direction of increasing our reliance on natural gas with respect to new gas fired power plants, natural gas fueled vehicles and numerous other industrial uses.  At best, continued reliance on natural gas will mitigate greenhouse emissions ever so slightly, with the risk of contaminating declining fresh water resources and increasing ground level air pollution.  Completely unacceptable is the increase in the hazardous chemicals introduced into our landbases through the hydraulic fracturing process.  Increased reliance on natural gas is a bad idea, and it ignores the elephant in the room, which is our industrial lifestyle.

Our future does not lie in nuclear energy, natural gas, oil or coal.  Our future depends on radically simplifying the way we live in the world.   We need less not more power.  The power of the future, if there is a future for us, must be decentralized, non-fossil fuel based, and it needs to be connected with suitable architectural design.

We need to wake-up.  We do not have much time, if we have any left at all.  Criminogenic corporations are destroying the planet in order that they may sell us a mindless consumer lifestyle that is neither sustainable nor personally fulfilling.  Corporations involved in industrial energy production are contaminating the oceans, the atmosphere and the landbases, which sustain all human and nonhuman life.   We must stop them, if there is to be any future for life, as we know it.

When it comes to energy there is no free lunch.  If we do not want to be contaminated with hazardous chemicals, radiation, toxic air and water, then we need to end industrial civilization and begin creating the societies of the future.  This means we need to give-up many of the fruits of industrial civilization, which include many of the electronic devices that we take for granted that all require electrical power either to charge the batteries or to power directly the technology.  We have thousands of years of examples of societies that did quite well without any electronic technology and without the consumptive lifestyles we take for granted.  One-way or the other, this is going to happen.  A voluntary choice provides us with the ability to be the agents of change.

It is time to be creative about resistance, monkey wrenching, and post-industrial society building.  Industrial civilization could sputter along another 50 years, but at its end there will be nothing left.  There will be oceans filled with toxins and plastics rather than aquatic life, untold species extinctions, unimaginable genetic mutations, unfathomable deforestation, and a completely unpredictable climate.  The only energy problem we have is industrial civilization.  The only solution to our energy problems is to get rid of industrial civilization.

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