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Is Natural Gas the Next Ethanol?

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These days, President Obama is extolling the virtues of natural gas, a fuel source found in abundance in several regions of the country. But as the Obama Administration appears to be poised to go all-in for extensive natural gas exploration, it may be beneficial to take a look back at ethanol, which only a few years ago was the Next Big Thing in the energy industry.

A renewable fuel additive, ethanol is produced from plants, most often corn, which is why Iowa and Nebraska, each known for its corn crops, are the two states that generate the most ethanol in the country. Touted at first as being clean and efficient, it was supposed to become a legitimate replacement for energy-producing substances like coal and oil. It was the solution America needed to foreign oil imports.

At present, ethanol accounts for about 10 percent of the nation's fuel supply, mostly because it is added to gasoline to create a flex-fuel. Two common blends are E85 (85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline) and E10 (10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline). But, as a mainstream fuel favored by drivers, ethanol just hasn't caught on. Even in the two states that produce the most ethanol it's hard to find a gasoline station that sells it. In Iowa, there are 176 stations that sell the E85 ethanol-gasoline blend, in Nebraska only 58.

Some critics of ethanol have been outspoken for years. None has been harsher than Senator John McCain of Arizona. In a 2003 interview with Fortune, McCain argued that "ethanol is a product that would not exist if Congress didn't create an artificial market for it. No one would be willing to buy it." He softened his rhetoric while he was running for president during 2008, since Iowa is a key state both in the primaries and caucuses and the general election, but in 2011, his presidential aspirations behind him, he was as brutal as ever. "Ethanol is a joke," he said on one of the Sunday morning political shows. "And it's a multibillion dollar spending -- all [agriculture] subsidies, sugar subsidies...they have to be examined."

That happened in July 2011 when Congress ended tax credits for ethanol, meaning the industry would have to survive without direct government subsidies. Congress made the move because, as NPR would report, "widespread support for ethanol...appears to be eroding." Part of that disenchantment stems from the fact that ethanol may not be as clean and efficient as it was originally promoted. "Corn ethanol, it turns out," according to Mother Jones magazine, "is actively worse for the environment than even gasoline."

Meanwhile, as support for ethanol waned, the next Next Big Thing was coming along -- natural gas. It has developed such buzz within the energy industry that it made it into President Obama's State of the Union address in February. "The natural-gas boom has led to cleaner power and greater energy independence," Obama said. "That's why my administration will keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits." That same week, The Washington Post editorial board joined in: "The president is right. The United States sits atop seas of natural gas, a fuel that drives electric turbines, warms home, heats water and even powers some big trucks. Much of this gas is in unconventional deposits that drillers have only begun to tap."

It's the reality that natural gas is often contained in these "unconventional deposits" that has created controversy around the substance -- negatives not mentioned by the president in his State of the Union address. But these drawbacks are so serious environmentalists have now launched a campaign against natural gas.

The main problem with natural gas is the hydraulic fracturing -- fracking -- required to get to the "unconventional deposits" deep in the ground so that they can be recovered by wells and brought to the surface. In fracking, a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals are forced at high pressure into a wellbore to make fractures from which the gas escapes into the well. While gas is indeed retrieved through this process, what is left behind is often devastating to the environment -- land destruction, water contamination, air pollution, among other hazards.

Especially problematic are the methane emissions that can occur. In February 2012, researchers with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Colorado in Boulder reported that in one oil and gas field outside Denver, 4 percent of the methane being produced by the wells was uncontained and escaping into the air. "If methane -- a potent greenhouse gas -- is leaking from fields across the country at similar rates," Nature News & Comment noted, "it could be offsetting much of the climate benefit of the ongoing shift from coal- to gas-fired plants for electricity generation." Even more troubling, research suggested that in one field in Utah the leakage may have been as high as 9 percent -- a number that would suggest an alarming instance of contamination.

In 2010, filmmaker Josh Fox released Gasland, a documentary detailing the disastrous effects fracking has had on communities across the country. In his film, Fox highlights families affected by fracking in Colorado, Wyoming, and Texas, showing examples of water so badly polluted by gas that tap water flowing from a kitchen faucet could be set on fire with a match. He has followed up his Academy-Award-nominated film with Gasland II, premiering now on HBO.

Appearing on The Daily Show to promote the film, Fox may have offered a quote that best sums up the national gas controversy. He said: "What we're seeing the natural gas industry do is say, 'Oh, we're not a fossil fuel. We're friendly, we burn cleaner than coal,' Well, it turns out, this is not true at all. Well, actually that part is true. [But] it's like the witches in Macbeth. The witches say to Macbeth, 'Oh, you're going to be the king.' And they leave out the part about how you're going to have to kill all of your friends, your wife's going to go crazy and commit suicide, and you'll be dead in three days. They left that part out."

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