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You know what natural gas smells like. Or do you? Natural gas is actually odorless. That rotten-egg smell is added for safety reasons. Otherwise, you might not notice a potentially deadly gas leak.
If only we could add a similar smell to the natural gas industry. Too many people—especially politicians—aren't paying attention to the dangers of the current "boom" in natural gas development. Here are three big reasons why we should stop new gas drilling before it starts and replace fossil fuels at every opportunity with clean, renewable energy.
It starts with how we get gas out of the ground. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is problem number one. Frackers inject a toxic chemical cocktail underground under high pressure to fracture the rock and release the gas. A lot of that fluid comes back up the well as waste and, when it does, it's even more toxic than it started out.
People who live in areas where fracking is happening are outraged. They should be. What guarantee do they have that their drinking water won't be affected by fracking? None. How do they know that toxic wastewater from fracking will be disposed of in a way that ensures it won't contaminate aquifers ten, twenty or thirty years from now? They don't.
In fact, a ProPublica investigation has identified more than 1,000 cases of water contamination near drilling sites. The risks don't end when the drilling does, either. The question isn't whether abandoned wells and fracking-waste storage sites can leak, but how many will fail, and how soon it will happen. Yet, incredibly, fracking enjoys exemptions from parts of at least seven major national environmental statutes, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. The rush to frack for natural gas has occurred with maximum greed and minimum oversight.
The next time someone tries to tell you that fracking is safe, ask them why, then, the industry spends so much money getting exemptions to our nation's environmental laws. Ask why the gas industry won't fully disclose exactly what's in the billions of gallons of water they are pumping into wells across the country. Ask why the gas industry fights so hard to enforce gag rules on local hospitals so that doctors can't talk about what chemicals are poisoning gas-drilling communities.
The Sierra Club believes no community should be forced to accept the risks of fracking. That's why we're working with local activists to support moratoriums on fracking in New York, Illinois and eight other states, as well as the right of local communities, like Longmont and Fort Collins in Colorado, to declare fracking off-limits within their borders.
That work's paying off, too: The New York State Assembly just last week passed legislation that would extend the moratorium on high-volume hydraulic fracturing in the state until May 2015. That victory is a credit to the passionate advocacy of citizens throughout the state who refuse to accept the premise that New York's countryside must be sacrificed for the sake of dirty-fuel profits. Together, we've also won the first round of a legal challenge to Pennsylvania's ACT 13 legislation, which similarly gives communities control over their own fate.
Moratoriums are important because, as currently practiced, fracking simply can't be considered safe. Take what's happening in Illinois. The Sierra Club and many other grassroots groups are fighting hard to get a moratorium in place because the frackers have not proven the safety of their process. But because of massive gas-industry lobbying, we do not yet have sufficient political support. With no regulations in place, and the frackers lining up, our local chapter joined an effort to develop rules that would prevent the worst abuses of the gas industry. And at one level they were successful—the proposed Illinois rules tighten some of the loopholes found in other states. But here's the thing: Even these improvements do not fully protect the health and safety of the good people of Illinois. In fact, no proposed legislation in any state currently does.
Although problem number one is how we get gas out of the ground, problem number two happens far above ground—in our atmosphere. Natural gas boosters like to claim that it is a climate-friendly energy source, supposedly because it's not as dirty as other fossil fuels. That's like saying it's safer to be attacked with a knife than a gun. If you end up dead, it's a moot point.
It's true that gas doesn't directly create as much carbon pollution as coal when it's burned, but that reality hides a larger story. Natural gas is mostly methane, and methane is an extremely powerful climate-disrupting gas all on its own (more than twenty times more potent than carbon dioxide).
We know that during the drilling and transportation of natural gas, methane leaks, but nobody knows exactly how much, because no comprehensive studies have yet been conducted. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has estimated that leakage rates are around 2.4 percent. However, a range of studies in recent years have called that figure into question. One of the most recent, from a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research group, measured methane leakage from a Utah gas field (not even shale gas!) up to an astonishing nine percent, and that didn't even include leakage from distribution and transmission. Any leakage rate much greater than the EPA’s 2.4 percent would be enough to make gas worse than coal as a climate disruptor.
But even if drillers could magically eliminate all methane leakage, natural gas would still threaten our climate simply because there's so much of it. If we allow the industry to extract and burn all (or even most) of it, then we're looking at irreversible climate disruption. The International Energy Agency estimates that to have a shot at keeping global warming under 3.6°F (which is a risky target considering the damage we've already incurred with a little more than 1°F of warming), we need to keep two-thirds of our known oil, gas and coal reserves in the ground. That's all the reason we need to go "all-in" on clean energy.
And that points to one of the biggest secrets the gas industry is trying to keep—we don’t actually need all this fracked gas. Despite the industry's well-funded misinformation campaigns, the fact is that clean energy is already cheaper than dirty fuels in many places. At the retail level, installing solar on your home is cheaper than traditional utility power for many homes in 14 states. At the wholesale level, solar panel prices have dropped 80 percent in the past five years, and new solar projects are beating out new gas and coal in places like California and New Mexico. We installed more solar and wind energy last year in the U.S. than new gas, coal and nukes combined. Although clean energy is not yet cheaper than dirty fuels in every part of the country, solar and wind have a nice little side benefit: They don't destabilize our climate. Plus, the cost of clean power continues to drop, while the cost of fossil fuels goes up. We need to build on this progress, not undermine it.
That's going to be even tougher if we don't address problem number three—the burning desire of the industry to export U.S. natural gas to foreign markets in the form of liquefied natural gas (LNG). That would actually make both of the other two problems worse. Opening up more foreign markets to U.S. natural gas would lock us into long-term contracts that will require us to keep on fracking, regardless of how quickly we move to clean energy at home. And owing to the cooling and pressurizing that are required to make LNG, it would also compound the carbon pollution from natural gas.
Although LNG exports would boost the profits of natural gas producers, they would also mean higher energy prices for American consumers and industries and serious problems for our climate. That's why the Sierra Club Beyond Gas campaign is aggressively challenging permits for new LNG export facilities. Like coal-export terminals, these projects are long-term carbon-pollution disasters waiting to happen.
Fracking, climate and LNG exports are three reasons why we want to keep natural gas in the ground as much as possible, but it's important to note that the Sierra Club is as committed to developing long-term clean-energy solutions as it is to opposing dirty-fuel problems. Instead of replacing one dirty fossil fuel with another, we can move to clean, renewable energy sources like wind, solar and geothermal. Together with upgrading our energy efficiency, that's what can free us from fossil fuels. We've already seen tremendous progress in the past four years, thanks to renewable energy standards, falling prices for solar and wind, innovative financing and (early in its first term) critical clean energy support from the Obama administration.
We need to maintain this clean-energy momentum. It's the only way we'll ever achieve "escape velocity" from the fossil fuel planet we've been stuck on for two hundred years. But the "get richer quicker" mentality behind the natural gas boom is trying to slow us down and drag us back to a world that runs almost entirely on dirty fuels.
What's that smell? It's not natural gas—it's greed.
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Tensions are continuing to rise in Canada over a controversial pipeline project as protesters enter their 12th day blockading railways, demonstrating on streets and highways, and paralyzing the nation's rail system
Colorado River Has Lost 1.5 Billion Tons of Water to the Climate Crisis, 'Severe Water Shortages' May Follow
California is headed toward drought conditions as February, typically the state's wettest month, passes without a drop of rain. The lack of rainfall could lead to early fire conditions. With no rain predicted for the next week, it looks as if this month will be only the second time in 170 years that San Francisco has not had a drop of rain in February, according to The Weather Channel.
The last time San Francisco did not record a drop of rain in February was in 1864 as the Civil War raged.
"This hasn't happened in 150 years or more," said Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at UCLA's Institute of the Environment and Sustainability to The Guardian. "There have even been a couple [of] wildfires – which is definitely not something you typically hear about in the middle of winter."
While the Pacific Northwest has flooded from heavy rains, the southern part of the West Coast has seen one storm after another pass by. Last week, the U.S. Drought Monitor said more Californians are in drought conditions than at any time during 2019, as The Weather Channel reported.
The dry winter has included areas that have seen devastating fires recently, including Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties. If the dry conditions continue, those areas will once again have dangerously high fire conditions, according to The Mercury News.
"Given what we've seen so far this year and the forecast for the next few weeks, I do think it's pretty likely we'll end up in some degree of drought by this summer," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported.
Another alarming sign of an impending drought is the decreased snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain range. The National Weather Service posted to Twitter a side-by-side comparison of snowpack from February 2019 and from this year, illustrating the puny snowpack this year. The snow accumulated in the Sierra Nevadas provides water to roughly 30 percent of the state, according to NBC Los Angeles.
Right now, the snowpack is at 53 percent of its normal volume after two warm and dry months to start the year. It is a remarkable decline, considering that the snowpack started 2020 at 90 percent of its historical average, as The Guardian reported.
"Those numbers are going to continue to go down," said Swain. "I would guess that the 1 March number is going to be less than 50 percent."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Prediction Center forecast that the drier-than-average conditions may last through April.
NOAA said Northern California will continue deeper into drought through the end of April, citing that the "persistent high pressure over the North Pacific Ocean is expected to continue, diverting storm systems to the north and south and away from California and parts of the Southwest," as The Weather Channel reported.
As the climate crisis escalates and the world continues to heat up, California should expect to see water drawn out of its ecosystem, making the state warmer and drier. Increased heat will lead to further loss of snow, both as less falls and as more of it melts quickly, according to The Guardian.
"We aren't going to necessarily see less rain, it's just that that rain goes less far. That's a future where the flood risk extends, with bigger wetter storms in a warming world," said Swain, as The Guardian reported.
The Guardian noted that while California's reservoirs are currently near capacity, the more immediate impact of the warm, dry winter will be how it raises the fire danger as trees and grasslands dry out.
"The plants and the forests don't benefit from the water storage reservoirs," said Swain, as The Mercury News reported. "If conditions remain very dry heading into summer, the landscape and vegetation is definitely going to feel it this year. From a wildfire perspective, the dry years do tend to be the bad fire years, especially in Northern California."
- Is California heading for another drought? - Los Angeles Times ›
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- California Fires Now Rage All Year as Drought Creates Tinderbox ... ›
- California weather stays dry as rain and snow come up short | The ... ›
- California Emerged From Drought and Is Still Catching Fire - The ... ›
A warm day in winter used to be a rare and uplifting relief.
Now such days are routine reminders of climate change – all the more foreboding when they coincide with news stories about unprecedented wildfires, record-breaking "rain bombs," or the accelerated melting of polar ice sheets.
Where, then, can one turn for hope in these dark months of the year?