The likelihood of natural gas to improve our energy outlook continues to garner fierce debate. On one hand, supporters argue that mining natural gas makes use of an abundant domestic resource. Additionally, burning natural gas is easier on the environment than other fossil fuels. Furthermore, exploiting a domestic resource could jolt our troubled economy toward the path of recovery. According to America’s Natural Gas Alliance, the natural gas industry contributed $385 billion to the U.S. economy in 2008 and supported 2.8 million jobs . Natural gas is burned primarily for home power generation, but T. Boone Pickens and other industry experts believe that converting our transportation fleet to burn natural gas instead of petroleum-based fuels could help alleviate America’s dependence on foreign oil.
Natural gas supporters make compelling arguments, but arguments against natural gas are equally convincing. Though burning natural gas is cleaner, various methods of extracting it are harmful to the environment and health of local inhabitants. The composition of shale rock makes extracting gas found in it particularly difficult, yet the Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that shale gas will account for up to half of the projected 20-percent increase in natural gas production in coming years. Mining shale gas requires the use of hydraulic fracturing, whereby water is pumped down a well at high pressures to fracture rock and release trapped gas. Although industry experts claim the process is safe and efficient, a study conducted by Cornell University scientists revealed a significant inefficiency with the amount of natural gas lost to the atmosphere. However, of more immediate concern is the cocktail of chemicals used in fracking fluids. Bob Perciasepe, deputy administrator of the EPA, testified before Congress on April 12, 2011 regarding the environmental concerns of hydraulic fracturing. He stated that fracking fluid contaminates drinking water aquifers and pollutes the atmosphere with known carcinogens. Also of concern is the tax burden this industry places on local residents. Elam M. Herr, assistant executive director of the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors, testified before the Marcellus Municipal Co-op on August 24, 2011 that the industry’s traffic needs exceed the capacity of local rural roads. Pennsylvania taxpayers have assumed the financial responsibility for the repairs because “the industry is contributing very minimally to the host communities.” Thus there are certain recognized environmental, health and infrastructure hazards posed by mining natural gas.
I’m an environmentalist at heart, and I would think twice about inflicting serious harm to our environment and health. That being said, it could prove equally costly to our economy, national security and environment if we fail to wean ourselves off of petroleum-based fuel. Converting our cars and buses to burn natural gas would reduce our demand for oil and could buy us the time we need to construct more reliable high-speed public transportation, invest in renewable sources of energy and innovate higher-performing electric cars. In essence, natural gas could offset our economic woes enough to catapult us into the 21st century world of greener and cleaner energy, all while putting people back to work.
Maxwell Balbin is a sophomore majoring in evironmental science. He can be reached at [email protected]