Is Gas the Solution to Our Coal Problem? Seriously?

02/18/2011 10:14 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Alison Rose Levy Health, food and environmental journalist; radio host, Progressive Radio Network

It would be unfortunate if the environmental community divided itself by making gas the solution to the coal problem, so we need to carefully explore win-win solutions. However, only those unfamiliar with the energy use, pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and health risks of the toxic chemical laden gas extraction process can point to a sunshine-y future with natural gas, as many do, in a host of recent blogs and articles that either subtly or overtly aim to debunk the Oscar-nominated film, Gasland, and solve the coal problem by promoting the use of gas.

As an article published by Abrahm Lustgarten in ProPublica reveals, "methane, the primary component of natural gas and among the more potent greenhouse gases, has far more of an effect on climate change than carbon dioxide." Rather than view gas as an end product, it's entire lifestyle from extraction to transport to production to use needs to be considered for emissions, environmental damage, health risk, and costs. A ProPublica analysis details why the climate benefits of natural gas may be overstated.

I've been covering this issue on HuffPost since 2009, and the following three links cover a range of issues, including addressing safety issues, and shifting both burden of proof, and the responsibility for addressing damage from communities and individuals to the industry:

Leading engineer and consultant to industry on what states need to do to regulate and provide oversight.

My current blog on Mark Ruffalo and Josh Fox visit to Washington with an overview of recommendations to the president and Congress.

Complete text of recommendations proffered by Josh Fox.

Those who envisage a clean future with gas would do well to assess the gas and oil industry's readiness to cooperate. The gas and oil industry has thus far resisted any regulations that would cut into the bottom line. Instead it blankets itself in PR spin, rather than redress the range of problems detailed above.

If informed by "he said" vs. "she said" reporting, one might believe certain media reports, ranging from 60 Minutes to the New York Times, in which industry regularly proclaims horizontal hydraulic fracturing 'safe,' citing decades of problem-free use.

However the current process, deploying more than 500 toxic chemicals, is relatively recent, brought into wide use, only following the passage of the 2005 Energy Bill, with the Halliburton Loophole, which exempted this process from EPA oversight. Therefore the "decades of safe use" contention confuses apples with oranges by referring to a different form of drilling.

Another example of industry compliance: Ignoring permit requirements for the use of diesel fuel in fracking fluids, companies injected millions of gallons of diesel fuel to frack sites in 19 states.

In Pennsylvania, where fracking has preceded unimpeded, the state homeland security department violated first amendment rights by putting on a terrorist "watch list" homeowners who attended public meetings, or who went to see the film, Gasland. More on that.

When Gasland was nominated for the Academy Award, Energy in Depth, a purported Mom and Pop group wrote the Academy to debunk the film. As detailed in a current Huffington blog, Energy in Depth is a gas and oil industry front organization. Josh Fox provides point by point responses to their critique here.

With fracking given carte blanche in Pennsylvania, residents in the neighboring state of New York (where companies now press to begin drilling) can readily see that the health, environmental, and economic risks don't end with the film's depictions. Spills, explosions, and illegal dumping of hazardous, radio-active waste are nearly routine occurrences, with more accounts of oversight, and harm than one blog or one film could detail.

Currently at risk are approximately 15 million Americans in both rural and major urban areas whose water supply comes from the Delaware River, named the "most endangered river" by American Rivers. The drilling of test wells in the river basin is slated to begin there shortly. More background here.

Given the current legislative environment, which acts within a context of influence by involved industries, in proposing gas as a solution, environmentally aware citizens and groups must ask: What's the feasibility of putting into place the necessary studies and other safety measures?

Up until now, the gas companies have externalized their costs, and covered there tracks with PR. Is there sufficient leverage to persuade them to change? Coal is unsustainable. But let's not solve one problem and create another. If any group proposing gas as a solution to the coal has the leverage to bring these industries to the table, many people would like to know about it.

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