An “Energetic” State of the Union
In this year’s State of the Union address, President Obama spoke extensively about the importance of domestic energy development to increase jobs and decrease dependence on foreign oil. The President used the term “clean energy” to encompass a broad array of energy practices. What should be considered “clean energy”? I will ask that question of one of the President’s main energy strategies— natural gas.
Is natural gas “clean energy”? Isn’t it “natural”? Just because something occurs in nature does not make it inherently clean. In fact, the process of accessing natural gas buried deep below the earth’s surface has the potential to introduce natural pollutants into our waters in a similar way that deep coal mining in some areas has resulted in acid mine drainage and gravely polluted rivers that we will be cleaning up for generations to come.
I would argue that the process of natural gas development is not “clean”. Fracking, the process used to access natural gas today, is not “clean”. Fracking uses chemicals that are known carcinogens. Although some would argue natural gas burns cleaner than coal, it would be a stretch to imply that means it is “clean”— cleaner perhaps, but not clean. Natural gas is still a fossil fuel. Plus, it is not a renewable energy source. Considering all of these factors, I would not consider natural gas “clean energy”.
If natural gas is not “clean energy”, should we be developing it? Ah, now there is the real question.
The President enthusiastically promoted the potential of natural gas to play a major role in America’s energy future. He noted that companies drilling for natural gas on public lands will be required to disclose the chemicals that they are using. That is a good first step. However, disclosure does not prevent contamination of water supplies. It just ensures that we know what to test for when water contamination or accidental ingestion occurs in humans, livestock, wildlife, and fish.
“America will develop this resource without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk.” President Barak Obama. January 24, 2012.
We assume that the President is fully behind this statement. Consequently, a greater commitment to stronger natural gas regulations on all lands- public or private – is essential to protect the water supply for millions of Americans across the country.
Before natural gas development is further promoted, we must ensure that strong and protective regulations are in place by removing exemptions for natural gas from major environmental laws, such as the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act. Also, some areas must be off limits to drilling, such as Wild and Scenic Rivers, drinking water source areas, and floodplains.
Finally, research – from the Environmental Protection Agency study on the impacts of natural gas development on drinking water to investigations of contamination events to academic inquiries - must be given time to be completed, presented, and debated in the public arena. The only way we will get answers to the questions surrounding the impacts of the lifecycle of natural gas development is to allow for unbiased scientific study.
With natural gas prices at a low, now is the time to think carefully about these studies and the cumulative impacts that natural gas development will have on our rivers and landscapes. Now is not the time to rush and push development of this resource that is neither “clean” nor renewable.