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Natural Gas- Not as Green as it used to be

This post was originally published by BulidingGreen.com on March 8th. It is a great update from a post we wrote a few months ago on the same subject.


Natural gas has been in the news a lot recently.

 

Graph: New York Times. Click on Image to enlarge

On the economics side, we are seeing a fascinating divergence of petroleum and natural gas prices. For decades, oil and gas prices have tracked pretty closely–natural gas prices rising and falling as international political events boosted or depressed oil prices. Today, for the first time, as oil prices are surging, natural gas prices are still falling. In the last few weeks, natural gas prices have fallen to historic lows, compared with oil.

 

A little over a week ago, the New York Times reported that on an apples-to-apples comparison (in which natural gas prices were converted to barrel-of-oil-equivalents), oil was four times as expensive as natural gas. And the price of oil has risen nearly $10 per barrel since then. That difference in price between these two energy sources has never been so great.

Image: From ReelFacts; adapted from USGS. Click on Image to enlarge

One significant implication is a significant regional disparity in hardship with home heating. About 55% of the country heats with natural gas, and those homeowners and renters have seen their heating costs go down. The 7% of Americans who heat with heating oil, however, have seen heating costs rise dramatically. In New England, heating oil prices have risen to over $3.60 per gallon.

The drop in price of natural gas has been driven by oversupply. We’re finding and producing more natural gas, and that has depressed prices. And we’re discovering huge new deposits of this energy source–most prominently with the vast Marcellus Shale deposits in Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, and West Virginia.

 

Image: Clean Water for North Carolina. Click on image to enlarge.

Named for the village of Marcellus, New York, this black shale formation was believed in 2002 to contain 1.9 trillion cubic feet (TCF) of natural gas (the U.S. uses about 23 TCF of natural gas per year), but by 2009, that estimate by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) had increased to 269 TCF!

 

Environmental benefits of natural gas

We have long looked to natural gas as the cleanest of fossil fuels. Burning it emits little nitrogen or sulfur pollution. Natural gas is mostly methane (a molecule comprised of one carbon atoms and four hydrogen atoms); it has the lowest carbon-to-hydrogen ratio of any hydrocarbon. That means burning natural gas releases more water vapor and less carbon dioxide than burning oil or coal (which have higher carbon-to-hydrogen ratios).

This is significant, because carbon dioxide is our most significant greenhouse gas–the leading culprit in global climate change. Burning natural gas instead of coal or oil will reduce the pace of climate change, proponents argue. The combustion of natural gas releases 117 pounds of CO2 per million Btus of heat produced, while burning the same heat content of gasoline emits 156 pounds, fuel oil 161 pounds, and coal 205 to 227 pounds, according to DOE.

Environmental concerns

Even as we tout the environmental benefits of natural gas, it has come under greater environmental scrutiny recently. For starters, the extraction and processing of natural gas releases some methane directly into the atmosphere, and methane is about 20 times as potent a greenhouse gas as CO2. Some estimate that while burning natural gas instead of coal to generate electricity results in only about half the CO2 emissions, when you factor in the direct emissions of methane, the greenhouse gas reduction is only about 25% (considering CO2-equivalents).

In addition, with Marcellus Shale natural gas production, there is significant potential for groundwater and drinking water contamination. This is because a practice called hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” involves injecting a mixture of water, sand, and various chemicals deep underground at extremely high pressure (as much as 10,000 psi) to fracture the underlying rock and free trapped pockets of natural gas.

The process is very water-intensive–with each fracking operation requiring as much as 5 million gallons of water, according to FracTracker, a project of the Center for Healthy Environments & Communities at the University of Pittsburgh. A single well may generate 1,000 tons of drilling waste that can include not only water and mud but also a range of salts, heavy metals, and naturally occurring radioactive material; much of that waste is held in surface impoundments. Leakage from those impoundments and the fracturing of rock sediments deep underground is contaminating groundwater throughout the region–the subject of a 2010 documentary film,Gasland.

Photo: PhillyWorkersVoice. Click on image to enlarge.

Currently, fracking is exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act–through a special provision in the 2005 Energy Policy Act passed during the George W. Bush Administration. That provision is known as the Halliburton Loophole; according to the New York Times it was added to the bill at the insistence of Vice President Dick Cheney to strip the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of the authority to regulate this practice.
Clearly, natural gas can–and should–play a role in a shift to cleaner, lower-carbon energy sources, but there’s no free lunch with this energy source. By understanding the impacts of natural gas extraction, we are reminded of the need to improve efficiency–no matter what the energy source. The less we use the better.

A Peaceful Uprising for the Environment

Several years back an economics major from the University of Utah bid on (and won) $1.8 million worth of oil and gas leases. However, he had no intention of ever paying for them. This was Tim DeChristopher’s way of protesting the gas and oil usage in favor of a more energy efficient and sustainable option. According to the Peaceful Uprising website, shortly after it was discovered that DeChristopher was not going to pay for the leases, “they were cancelled by Interior Secretary Salazar. The revoked parcels were subsequently broken up into three categories: parcels appropriate for future auction since they are surrounded by existing oil development, those never appropriate for future auction, because of their wilderness value, and those requiring further consideration to determine the appropriateness of drilling.

After being evaluated by Secretary Salazar, only 29 of the 116 parcels up for auction went through. Most of them were permanently dismissed; a handful of the parcels warranted further evaluation.”

This result is also due to the work of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance who had been raising red flags and working on lawsuits against the selling of the leases at the same time as DeChristopher.

DeChristopher was charged with two felonies related to the disruption of the auction. He was tried and found guilty on March 3rd, 2011.

However, even in the face of jail, he leaves the public with an inspiring message. The message focused on the importance of supporting each other and not allowing anyone to feel as though they are facing challenges alone. DeChristopher described his experience during the trial: ” Everything that went on inside that building tried to convince me that I was alone, and that I was weak. Inside that building, they tried to convince me that I was a little finger out there on my own that could easily be broken. All of you out here were the reminder, for all of us, that I wasn’t just a finger all alone in there, but that i was connected to a hand, with many fingers, that can unite as one fist, and that fist cannot be broken by the power that they have in there.”

Sustainble1000 has been following the trial throughout and was able to get an interview with DeChristopher. This has been a very important trial for protesters everywhere. While the result was not ideal, it is true, as DeChristopher stated after his verdict, that  “We know that now I’ll have to go to prison. We know that now that’s reality, but that’s just the job I have to do. That’s the role that I face, and many before me have gone to jail for justice. If we’re going to keep our vision, many after me will have to join me as well. Nobody ever told us that this battle would be easy. Nobody ever told us that we wouldn’t have to make sacrifices. We knew that when we started this fight.”

Just because this trial has been decided, we hope that protesters and the people of the world do not forget to fight for what they believe. And in fighting will find companions who will stand beside them in the face of challenge and work until what is right has been done.

>Dear Wyoming

>

It was a pleasure meeting you this week. I look forward to talk with you about your work there in those wide open spaces. So much to treasure in that land of yours.

We’ll talk again soon.

>Dear Pocatello

>As the trip to your beautiful city is wrapping up I am reminded of why I started this journey. Meeting Brenda from Habitat for Humanity, her husband Don, Robert from a local housing organization, and Don Aslett the creator of the Clean Museum. Check for videos of them soon on Youtube.
Idaho's Museum of Clean
The day in Pocatello turns into a series of connections in a web of sustainability. Like many of the cities through other 9 states I visited, this one delivered on the joy of friends and family.
As i drove into the town the day before, I felt tired and uninspired, then Don came by to pick me up. Since I had been using Couchsurfing.org for some of my accommodations, my host was not sure if I had a car or not. He literally came by to pick me up from the coffee shop where I had been working. It was nearly 10 and had gotten dark.
As I followed him back to the family home, I realized just how special these sorts of encounters can be. It’s not simply staying in a hotel, these folks invite you into their home.

We curved through the neighborhood on the hillside of Pocatello. Don showed me to their guest room where the family decor provided a perfect backdrop for me to relax.
I completed more work on the videos from Salt Lake City. I realized that each one takes about 3 hours from start to finish including a long upload process to Youtube. This makes me cringe when I think of how many segments I have not cut.
As I looked out my window overlook Pocatello, I saw the twinkling lights of the town. Bright bulbs pulsing and shimmering as the day cooled down.
The family has been in the fireworks business for years. They employ dozens of people this time of year and make a majority of the money for the whole year in the course of two weeks.
I know, fireworks. I should be going on a rant about the non-environmental impact of these types of things. And there are many rants here for those who want to know that, but this story is about family and community. It’s also about the transformation of a people toward sustainability. The stages of it are important to note. Several folks have echoed the message that living eco/green/sustainably is about steps. The most beautiful thing about starting to live sustainably is that it happens slowly. It’s like planting a seed to discover what green means to you in your life.
Brenda heads up Habitat for Humanity for the region. Her prowess in the community is over everything. With connects to every part of this town, she even has her own local tv show.
As I sat in the studio with the other Don aka Mr. Clean, I was reminded of all the times I had filmed my show in New York. Once Brenda started talking about her town  and its neighborhoods, I grew even more impressed. She truly is about connecting with her neighbors. The studio staff that films her who warmly welcomed her, the other people working in housing in Pocatello as I visited their offices, and even people who do not know her directly like Mr. Clean himself.
I look forward to speaking with a few more folks from her community of connections on our radio shows.
Blogger Labels: eco,Pocatello,Habitat,Aslett,Clean,Museum,Salt,Lake,fireworks,money,impact,transformation,neighborhoods,radio

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>Dear Nevada

>

Great meeting one of your greenest citizens. Zachery has been working hard for several years now on educating the convention industry on the ins and outs of reuse.

His organization Greener Vegas has made a real impact with millions of tons of materials that would have gone into the landfills being diverted to community projects throughout Las Vegas.

His bigger idea of helping shift convention and conference waste streams is even more excited. This initiative is called RepurposeAmerica.org. By eliminating landfill and garbage, the organization can feed these resources back to the local communities.

greener vegas

Check out our upcoming video with him at his warehouse as we talk about Vegas’ path toward sustainability.

Also, I met with the organization, Springs Preserve 10 minutes from the Strip. This museum and education center is a shining beacon for sustainability. They have merged so many excellent education tools. Check out this place whenever you visit Vegas. It is a hidden treasure!

greener vegas

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>Utah – Colorado Best of Photos

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>Utah’s Gulf Oil Spill

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For local communities, any pollution can have a dramatic impact on children. Even the smallest amount of lead or mercury around a newborn can serious learning disabilities. For Roi Maufas and Allysa Kay from Salt Lake City, their young son has been directly affected by the June 12, 2010 Chevron oil spill. Since the spill last week, he has complained of intense stomach aches and a shortness of breath.

Map picture

For a child without a medical history, you might think it was a just something he ate. This seems to be directed to him going to the park because the city did not quarter it off. They left it open for families to continue to use even as the clean up is still going on.

Their son plays in this park directly across the street from their home. The tree filled and friendly space called to its residents. The community members respond in kind. However, on June 12 the unthinkable happened. 33000 gallons of oil spilled into the pond in the park affecting wildlife as well as the happy family.

Roi and Allysa’s son suffers from a childhood respiratory illness that makes him particularly susceptible to pollutants in his environment.

National attention has been focused on the devastating impact of the deep sea oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It is important to note that spills across America might be have big impacts in small communities. They may also be more directly affecting people’s health not just the economy.

For more details on the spill.

Roi’s work in eco design unfortunately cannot help in this situation. Check out his work to help refugee’s by creating efficient and stable eco-housing for distressed populations.

Sustainable1000 video ready soon.

Remember, this is another reason why we need to move away from polluting and toxic petroleum as our main energy source.