“Natural” gas: the silent polluter

Natural gas hardly is natural. Not in how it’s extracted, refined or transported at least.

To obtain natural gas, most extraction is performed utilizing a process called hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”). Fracking is an increasingly water intensive process. The average fracked natural gas well consumes about 9,600,000 gallons of water, which is mixed with sand, a proprietary (and therefore largely unknown) cocktail of fracking chemicals (thought to be largely toxic). There are also variable amounts of radon in natural gas as fracking is extracting trapped pockets within shale formations that are often deep underground.

What the frack?

A fracking drill rig in operation.

During the fracking process, large amounts of what is referred to as fugitive methane (CH4) escapes the natural gas wells. CH4 is a very powerful greenhouse gas that has a more immediate and larger (but shorter lasting) impact than CO2.

Once fracking completes, the waste water must be disposed. Because the administration of George W. Bush and a sympathetic congress practically eviscerated the Clean Water Act, the 9,600,000 gallons of waste water are able to be injected back in to the same fracking site or nearby. In addition, fracking profit margins are razor thin, every cost cutting measure is taken — even at the peril of our planet and its inhabitants.

Post extraction processing includes treatment and additions of other compounds. The end product isn’t just methane or CH4 — commonly referred to as natural gas.

A graphic illustrating how water sources may be polluted by fracking waste.

Tracking the fracking

During transportation of natural gas from wells the gas is often loaded on to high pressure pipelines that transport the natural gas to nearby facilities for processing and then distribution. During this process potentially dangerous amounts of fugitive methane are released all throughout the pipeline distribution network. Emitting large quantities that become trapped in the atmosphere causing an insulating effect. Pipelines also have a long and storied history of accidents and even explosions, injuring and killing many.

A fracking site aerial view (showing waste water pool).

The net impact of natural gas fracking, transportation and combustion is similar (and quite possibly worse if fugitive methane continues to grow) than that of coal. Unlike coal, however, natural gas has achieved some level of marketability as being a clean source of energy. While it burns cleaner than coal, the whole picture must be kept in mind.

Now that solar and wind energy provide a lower cost structure for energy production and storage than natural gas, and with much of the rest of the world pushing forward with initiatives to use more and more renewable sources of energy, what do we have left to lose but some CH4 and the undesirable second and third order effects that come with it?