Fossil Gas: What we’d call natural gas if we were serious

I strongly encourage you to take an hour or two out of your day today and read the amazing series of articles available on the Pro Publica website called Buried Secrets:  Gas Drilling’s Environmental Threat.

I can’t tell you how many people have insisted to me that fossil gas is an excellent “bridge fuel,”  meaning that it is better than coal for producing electricity, and then go on to construct a whole energy future built around “clean natural gas.”  Indeed, the natural gas folks think that natural gas is terrific, too!  At least more terrific than their competitors:

The use of fossil fuels for energy contributes to a number of environmental problems. As the cleanest of the fossil fuels, natural gas can be used in many ways to help reduce the emissions of pollutants into the atmosphere. Burning natural gas in the place of other fossil fuels emits fewer harmful pollutants into the atmosphere, and an increased reliance on natural gas can potentially reduce the emission of many of these most harmful pollutants.

Well, I guess that’s true enough for as far as it goes.  But as Stan Cox put it:

Natural gas is “clean” only in contrast to coal — just as a bacon cheeseburger can only be regarded as healthful compared with a double bacon cheeseburger.

The Pro Publica series highlights some of the other problems that exist when one  starts to look at the full life cycle of fossil gas production, like the fact that the gazillion gallons of waste water generated by the massive fossil-fuel gas drilling project in New York is radioactive!!

(It’s kinda like when you look at the life cycle of bio-fuels, it turns out that burning food for fuel has lots of problems.  Like increasing the cost of food and causing more environmental harm than it reduces.  But that’s a rant for a different day.)

Back to the radioactive water in New York issue:

The information comes from New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation, which analyzed 13 samples of wastewater brought thousands of feet to the surface from drilling and found that they contain levels of radium-226, a derivative of uranium, as high as 267 times the limit safe for discharge into the environment and thousands of times the limit safe for people to drink.

In 2008, about 46% of California’s electricity was produced by fossil gas.   Between 11 and 13%  was from renewables. (Notice that the chart on page 6 indicates that amount of renewable energy provided as a percentage of sales has actually gone down 4 of the 6 years since California adopted its Renewable Portfolio Standard, with fossil gas use expanding rapidly.  I must note, however, that the reported numbers of renewables generated come from the utilities themselves and the 2008 numbers haven’t been verified by the California Energy Commission, yet.)

Despite the clear public health impacts of burning fossil fuel for energy (see a little about the air quality impacts in my post “Why Clean Air Matters”), fossil fuel’s serious impacts on the climate, and California’s much discussed commitment to expanding its renewable energy goals to 33% by 2020, California hasn’t pulled back on the throttle for its approvals of fossil gas power plants.  There are about 12,300 Mega Watts  (“MW”) of fossil gas plants currently under review by the California Energy Commission in addition to the 2,040 MW of fossil gas that came on line so far in 2009, the 1,078 MW of approved and under construction of fossil gas plants and the 6,415 MW approved but not yet under construction and 1,325 MW that have been announced by have not yet submitted applications.   And all this is on top of the 13,180 MW of fossil gas that came on line between 2001 and 2008  As best as I can tell looking at the CEC spreadsheet, since 1996 they’ve denied only 2 projects–a total of 216 MW.

Or, for those who prefer information tables:

Built 2001-2008

Under Review On-Line 2009 Approved/under Construction Approved/not under Const Announced but no application
13,180 MW 12,329MW 2,040 MW 1,078 MW 6,415 MW 1,325 MW

source California Energy Commission

All that fossil gas comes from somewhere.  In future posts I’ll talk about where.  Then it has to be burned somewhere.  I’ll talk about that, too.   Somebody has to breath its emissions, I’ll definitely talk about who.  Finally, it turns out that to build these fossil gas plants in Southern California you have to be willing to gut the California Environmental Quality Act and try to up-end the Federal Clean Air Act.  (You should read the excellent Opinion piece written by Senator Alan Lowenthal in the Sacramento Bee for an overview of that issue.)

It’s not my view that there is no short term roll in energy provision for fossil gas, but we should be building an energy system based on clean, renewable (non-nuclear) energy and we’re not doing that bringing a couple thousand megawatts of fossil gas per year on-line in California while providing scant resources to support development of renewables and the approvals for renewable projects drag on without end.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again here: we’ve got to change the way we make and use energy if we are going to solve our public health crisis and save the planet from catastrophic climate collapse.

Using fossil fuels for energy–including fossil gas–has serious impacts.  We should not pretend that it does not.  If we’re not careful, much more careful than we are being right now, we’ll end up building a bridge to nowhere.

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