Natural Gas: A False Solution to Climate Change

Written by Stephen McGlenn
International gas lobbyists have descended on Cancun and are flaunting natural gas as a solution to coal and as an energy source for a transition to a low-carbon economy.  According to some industry experts, burning natural gas releases 50-70% less greenhouse gases than burning coal with the latest clean coal technology. However, the story of natural gas is much more complicated.

Areas in brown and red are the natural gas leases signed on the Blood Reserve in Southern Alberta by BoWood and Murphy Oil

In the face of coal power’s long and deep political connections, the natural gas industry is slowly making its lobbying presence stronger and stronger. Recent discoveries reveal huge quantities of natural gas trapped in underground formations. In the United States, estimates range between 1,400 and 2,600 trillion cubic feet of natural gas lies either offshore or underground.  Similarly, Canada is currently the world’s third largest producer of natural gas, most of which comes from the Western Canadian Sedimentary Basin (WCSB) stretching from the Rocky Mountains in Western Alberta to the Canadian Shield in Manitoba. While this is considered a mature area for exploration, estimates project that 143 trillion cubic feet of discovered and undiscovered natural gas remains underground in the WCSB, ripe for extraction. Under NAFTA, Canada is required to export 60% of its natural gas production to the United States, and in 2004 Canada provided 85% of gross US imports of natural gas.

Despite the efficiency gains in burning natural gas, one must also take into account GHG emissions associated with infrastructure requirements of using natural gas: extraction, pipelines, transport, etc.  Additionally, burning natural gas releases methane, a greenhouse gas considered to be much worse than carbon dioxide in terms of climate-forcing.  From these factors, burning natural gas will actually contribute more to climate change than burning coal.

But a more critical issue of natural gas use is the procedures used to mine the resource.  Hydro-fracking, or fracking, is a process by which a mixture of water, sand, and a cocktail of unknown industrial chemicals are injected into underground water aquifers in order to extract the gas from rock formations.  As shown in the recent documentary film, Gasland, residents of various American states subject to fracking are unable to drink their water, and are even portrayed lighting their tap water on fire. Despite industry claims of the harmlessness of hydro-fracking and the falseness of the film portrayal, there is a growing concern amongst Americans and Canadians about the safety of fracking.

Out of the potentially hundreds of chemicals used in fracking, most of which are kept secret by industry, scientists have identified volatile organic compounds (VOC), benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, etc., and a host of other chemicals. Due to poor cement casings in the fracking well, these chemicals often leak into aquafers, an already poorly understood aspect of our water supply. One thing is clear though: toxic chemicals should have no place in our water supplies. The state of New York, where natural gas reserves are enormous, is currently debating a moratorium on fracking. The Delaware River in New York state which supplies water to almost 15 million people could be subject tothe effluence of fracking unless a moratorium is put in place.

Residents of the Blood Indian Reservation in Southern Alberta, Canada’s largest reservation situated in the middle of the WCSB, are subject to the muscle of this emerging industry. BoWood Energy and Murphy Oil recently signed a lease worth over $50 million on the Blood Tribe Reservation for natural gas extraction through fracking (insert map). According to members of the Blood Tribe, fracking has already been taking place on the Blood reserve, but is set to increase exponentially with this new lease. Particularly troubling is that this agreement was signed behind closed doors, without the tribal referendum and majority support of Blood tribe members that is legally required for this deal to occur. Now, opponents of the deal that are speaking out about the dangers of fracking are being silenced by industry and government.

The fracking of the Blood Reserve puts the waters of southern Alberta at risk. Once again, an indigenous community must weigh short term economic opportunities forces offered by huge market forces, with the health water, environment, community and future.

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