In recent years, the natural gas industry plunged into a reckless gold rush across communities nationwide with dirty, dangerous drilling and "fracking" practices that are exempt from many clean air and water laws. Now the gas profiteers have realized that there's even more money to be made by liquefying the gas and shipping it overseas — and so what if that sends gas prices here at home through the roof?
The proposed Dominion LNG export facility in Calvert County's Cove Point provides a good case study of why this practice is bad for the environment, for people and for our nation's fragile economy.
The problems with gas begin with getting it out of the ground. Companies roll into a town or rural community, set up massive drilling rigs, and then grind through soil, rock and drinking water aquifers to reach the gas deposits. Next comes the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, where millions of gallons of water mixed with sand, and a potentially toxic cocktail of chemicals, is pumped at high pressure into tiny cracks, breaking up the rock and releasing the gas. Not surprisingly, this violent process is known to contaminate drinking water, release huge amounts of the potent greenhouse gas methane into the air, disrupt life in local communities and create vast cleanup problems.
The proposed Cove Point facility will rely on increased fracking in the Marcellus shale, a gas-rich geologic formation under parts of Maryland, Ohio, New York, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Intensifying interest in this shale is particularly bad news for Pennsylvania, where already-weak safeguards to protect people's air, water and health just became even less sturdy. A new law forced through the state legislature by pro-drilling lawmakers and industry lobbyists takes away local municipalities' authority to protect their residents and allows drilling companies to start fracking just a football field's length away from their children's schools, the local hospital, or people's backyards.
Once the industry has fracked its gas, sacrificing people's health and drinking water along the way, the industry wants to get that gas to the coast. So brace for an invasion of lawyers with eminent domain orders, followed by an ugly tangle of pipelines punctuated with compressor stations slicing across fields and streams. And yes, the pipelines will leak methane and rupture, further polluting the water and air.
The final step before sending the product abroad is the dirty and energy-intensive method of turning the gas into liquid. To create liquefied natural gas (LNG), the gas must to undergo a massive super-cooling process, which is exactly what Maryland's proposed Cove Point facility would be designed to do. But most people don't realize that the enormous amount of energy this process requires makes LNG's overall greenhouse gas pollution similar to that of coal. So much for the argument that natural gas is a "clean" alternative to coal-burning power plants.
Maryland has made great progress in its fight to shut down dirty, coal-fired plants and protect the health of its communities. Allowing an LNG export facility to come online would knock the state two steps back.
Ultimately, the only safe, smart and responsible way to address our nation's energy needs is to look beyond dirty energy and focus on clean sources like wind, solar and geothermal, as well as energy efficiency. Dollar for dollar, investing in clean energy will put more Americans to work than wasting money on perpetuating our national addiction to dirty, 19th century fossil fuels. We are supposed to learn from the past, right?
A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I took our two young children on an Amtrak trip from the San Francisco Bay Area to Colorado and back. One particularly spectacular stretch took us through the Sierra Nevada foothills — Gold Country. Even now, more than 150 years later, you can see hillsides that were obliterated by high-pressure hydraulic mining as people lost sight of what's important and went crazy with lust for quick riches. In 2012, all too often it's gas companies that have run amok over America's landscapes. It's time to bring them under control.
Exporting natural gas is not in our country's best interest. That's why the Sierra Club filed a protest before the U.S. Department of Energyopposing the Cove Point LNG export facility and asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agencyand White House Council on Environmental Quality to oppose it as well. It's simply irresponsible to speed up fracking in order to ship LNG overseas. If we can't get natural gas out of the ground safely, we should just leave it there.
Michael Brune is executive director of the Sierra Club. His email is email@example.com.