To most of us, “energy” means gasoline and electricity. In news reports and advertising, the connection is regularly reiterated. Most of us, I suspect from talking to folks, think of a Toyota Prius or Chevy Volt as cars which do not pollute the air. They run on electricity, and electricity is clean. Right?
The small (about 1.5 square miles) semi-rural historic south-central Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg is about 12 blocks square. If I’ve counted correctly, we have 18 traffic lights. I’ve spent far too much of my life waiting for reds to turn green, while my vehicle burns gas it should be burning to take me to the next traffic light. Narrow two lane streets conspire to make left turns virtually impossible, causing backups even when the light turns green. Gettysburg – and Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and Boston – could benefit from electric cars.
But those electric and hybrid transporters of people and stuff are killing fish in New England.
Somewhere in western West Virginia or Kentucky, mountains are being leveled and valleys filled as we scrape mountain tops to reveal coal that will fire western Pennsylvania electricity generators.
The exhaust from those mills, as they generate electricity to power our Prius through Gettysburg, is wind-blown northeast, to fall as acid rain on lakes and streams in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.
Coal, on the other hand, is dug from Appalachian mountains, where not many people live, and burned in western Pennsylvania generating plants, also where, relative to the population along the Eastern Seaboard, not many electricity consumers live.
We can’t see the problem; ergo, there is no problem.
(For a good read about the effect of coal “mining” in the Appalachian Mountains, see “Lost Mountain: A Year in the Vanishing Wilderness,” by Erik Reece. It is a very readable description of a year spent watching what most of us never get to see.)
So if natural gas is cleaner than coal – let’s go for it!
Unfortunately, every good deal comes with a cost.
In 2008, a study by Southern Methodist University concluded that natural gas production in the Barnett Shale in the Dallas-Fort Worth area resulted in about the same smog-producing emissions as all the cars and trucks on D-FW roads.
“The study found that emissions of carbon dioxide and two other major greenhouse gases underlying climate change were estimated to be roughly equivalent to the impact of two 750-megawatt coal plants,” the SMU Research blog reported in February 2009.
Similar studies in Colorado and Wyoming came up with similar results.
Closer to home, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett’s Marcellus Shale Commission was, last month, revealed to be populated with an abundance of environmental violators. According to a report released by the environmental group, Clean Water Action, eight of the drillers represented on the commission racked up nearly half of the 1,227 drilling-related violations issued last year by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
The Number Three violator in that report, Chesapeake Energy, scored 132 of the citations.
This week, DEP awarded Chesapeake Energy a $1.1 million fine for polluting well water and causing a tank fire.
“The water well contamination fine is the largest single penalty DEP has ever assessed against an oil and gas operator,” DEP Secretary Mike Krancer said in a press release. “and the Avella tank fire penalty is the highest we could assess under the Oil and Gas Act,”
Earlier this year, DEP ordered a drilling company in Butler County to provide drinking water to residents whose wells had been contaminated by the company’s operation.
There is a silver side to the dark fog and mist. According to SMU’s Al Armendariz, a research associate professor in the department of environmental and civil engineering: cost effective technology exists to reduce the emissions.
And the City of Fort Worth has adopted an ordinance requiring some of the controls be installed.
Back home in Pennsylvania, DEP says improper sealing of wells is the source of drinking water contamination. After the well is drilled, and before that cocktail of water, sand and toxic chemicals in pumped into the well to fracture the rocks and release the gas, drillers insert a casing and fill around the casing with cement.
According to DEP, some of the companies are doing a less than perfect job of sealing the well. Gas and chemicals are allowed to escape into the surrounding drinking water supply.
The methane gas that is being drawn from Marcellus Shale is being called a “bridge fuel” to span the gap between oil and coal (which those producers don’t want to give up) and whatever energy producer comes next – solar, wind or something else, the fossil fuel producers will come up with when the price is right.
They are telling us there is enough gas in the Marcellus for 50 years. That’s a l-o-o-n-g bridge.
Maybe we should keep some pressure on our politicians to make sure the darn thing is safe enough to cross until we don’t need it anymore. It would be nice to know when the Chevy Volt finally comes available, we’ll be alive to drive it.
And maybe to find a way to charge it without killing fish.
Readers may contact John Messeder at john@JohnMesseder.com.
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