Fracking has been a contentious issue in the state of North Carolina and debates have raged over whether or not this practice should be started here. However, there appears to be a knowledge gap in exactly what fracking is. Many people, unless they are environmental science majors, are not sure what fracking is and do not know what to think of it. While in reality environmental science majors have a variety of opinions about fracking, the perception is that to be an environmentalist you must be against fracking. Knowledge about fracking and its potential pros and potential cons is limited in the community and it would be beneficial to address this issue.
Natural Gas Leaks Across the U.S.
What is a Natural Gas Leak?
A natural gas leak occurs when natural gas escapes from a natural gas storage facility. Methane, the main component of natural gas, spews out of these facilities into the atmosphere1. Methane is not only dangerous to the environment but also to living organisms2.
Natural gas is stored in facilities around the country to provide us with energy. Natural gas is quickly becoming an extremely prominent source of energy in the US. Natural Gas can also escpae into the atmosphere through natural sources9.
Why Are Natural Gas Leaks So Dangerous?
Methane can cause short-term health effects to humans, including, dizziness, headaches and vomiting3. Although no long-term effects have been observed, the short-term effects can be severe. Residents in areas of a gas leak often must be displaced1.
Methane has also been rumored to affect domestic animals, causing nosebleeds and shortness of breath. Residents in areas with gas leaks have observed animals falling ill and even dying4. However, little scientifically is known on what effect methane has on domestic animals.
The main concern of methane is the long-term effect this gas has on the environment. Methane, a greenhouse gas, is an extremely significant contributor to climate change5. Scientists estimate that methane warms the earth at 84 times the rate of carbon dioxide6.
Where in the U.S. Are These Leaks Happening?
The most recent Natural Gas leak has occurred in Porter Ranch, California7. The leak, caused by Southern California Gas Company, has been occurring since October 23rd 8. The California governor has declared a state of emergency, and 2,200 households have been displaced9.
The October 23rd leak is the largest natural gas leak in California’s history10. Stopping the leak has proved to be tricky, and could take up to four months6. The leak is coming from a mile and a half underground, making it a tough fix8.
However, California residents aren’t the only ones who will feel the effects. The leak’s impact on global warming is comparable to driving 4.5 million cars a day5. Environmental scientists communicate that this leak will affect everyone across the globe as temperatures rise.
Without a solution, 110,000 pounds of methane will continue to leak into the atmosphere hourly9. The leak negates California’s ambitious pledges to cut greenhouse gas emissions in coming years6. Estimates predict this leak has the same environmental effect as do six coal-fired plants daily5.
These leaks aren’t limited to California or even the United States. Leaks are prevalent all across the globe, some leaks more serious than others. A leak in Venezuela spewed 10 times the amount of methane as the California leak1.
To slow climate change, natural gas leaks around the world must be reduced.
- “Shocking study shows how much methane leaked globally”, January 18, 2016, The Weather Network
- “California Natural Gas Leak is Just One of Thousands Across the Country” January 18, 2016, PBS Newshour
- “California Governor Declares Emergency Over Porter Ranch Gas Leak” January 7, 2016, CNN
- “Natural Gas Leak Near Los Angeles May Be Sickening To Animals” January 18, San Jose Mercury News
- “This is How Much the California Gas Leak is Hurting The Planet”, January 14, 2016, Time Magazine
- “Dangerous Methane Leak Requires Emergency Measures”, January 7, 2016, Scientific American
- “Huge California Gas Leak Will Come to an End In February, Utility Says” January 19, 2016, Huffington Post
- “Stopping Natural Gas Leak Near Los Angeles is a Complex Fix” January 9, 2016, The ABC News
- “Thousands Sickened, Toxic Gas Leak Containment Plans Delayed” January 17, 2016, The Weather Network
- “California Residents Vent Frustrations over State’s Biggest Gas Leak” January 16, 2016, Yahoo News
Today, more than one billion kilograms of methane will leak into the air in California. Thousands have been displaced by the natural gas leak 27 miles north of Los Angeles.
This leak has put the U.S.’s natural gas industry in the spotlight. It raises questions as to how clean the low-carbon fuel really is. Here’s what we do know about the methane leak and the gas industry.
The leak is bad for the locals.
California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency because of the leak. Thousands have evacuated, citing nausea, nosebleeds, and headaches for their leaving.
Recently, the Washington Post reported that the leak might be even more harmful than anticipated. They found high levels of benzene, a cancer-causing chemical, in the air of surrounding areas.
The Southern California Gas Company’s storage facility has been leaking since Oct. 23, 2015. The leak is still far from being contained. The company has estimated that it won’t be stopped until late February.
It is also bad for the environment.
Natural gas is a cleaner fuel because it emits low levels of carbon dioxide once burned. The methane-rich raw natural gas, however, is very harmful to release into the atmosphere.
Natural gas is 95-98% methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. According to the EPA, it has more than 25 times the impact on climate change.
Methane leaks are not rare.
Methane gas leaks like the one in California are not uncommon. The EPA estimates that 30% of methane emissions from natural gas systems come from leaks.
One study found more than 1,000 small methane leaks in New York City alone. This problem isn’t just bad for the environment, its also costly to the gas companies. Their product is being released out into the air instead of being sold to consumers.
Problems like the leaks in New York are relatively easy to fix, however. Durham, North Carolina, replaced all of its gas mains. They now have 90% less leaks per mile than New York.
Methane leaks are not the only problem with the industry.
We are finding more and more problems with natural gas production. Fracking, a common natural gas extraction process, is now a hot topic among environmentalists. We’re slowly realizing the potential harm of this growing industry, from water contamination to earthquakes.
The industry fights any attempted regulation, saying we don’t know that they’re causing the problems. They have succeeded in classifying many of their processes as trade secrets. Therefore, we still have a lot to learn about how the industry operates.
Fracking, for example, involves injecting a cocktail of chemicals deep underground at high speeds. The process is now being blamed for many negative health and environmental impacts. Who would’ve guessed that slamming chemicals down a hole in the ground could be bad?
Governor declares emergency over Los Angeles gas leak. By Ian Lovett. NY Times. Jan 6, 2016.
No short-term fix for California methane leak. By Henry Fountain. NY Times. Jan 7, 2016.
Experts have just found natural gas leaking out of 1,000 spots in New York City. By Dan Vergano and Peter Aldhous. Buzzfeed News. Sept. 9, 2015
Things to know about the 12-week-old Los Angeles gas leak. By Brian Melley. The Washington Post. Jan. 15, 2016
‘An oversight’: Calif. Utility understated levels of cancer-causing chemical in L.A. gas leak. By Sarah Kaplan. The Washington Post. Jan. 15, 2016
At Paris climate talks, experts cite looming risk from industrial coolants, methane. By Joby Warrick. The Washington Post. Dec. 5, 2015
More quakes rattle Oklahoma but state avoids tough measures. By Seth Borenstein, Kelly P. Kissel and Sean Murphy. Associated Press. Jan. 18, 2016
Methane leaks in natural-gas supply chain far exceed estimates, study says. By John Schwartz. NY Times. Aug. 18, 2015.
Natural gas leak in California raises health, environmental concerns. Merrit Kennedy. NPR. Dec. 15, 2015
Massive methane gas leak displaces thousands in Los Angeles county. By Ingrid Lobet. NPR. Dec. 24, 2015
Natural gas and oil are underground fossil fuels. Both are obtained by drilling and release carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. Natural gas is known for releasing significant amounts of methane when burned.
Carbon dioxide and methane are atmospheric greenhouse gases. Methane is the more potent gas in terms of trapping heat on the Earth. Therefore, there is controversy surrounding the use of natural gas as an energy source.
Gas drilling produces wastewater usually injected into underground wells. Earthquakes at sites in Oklahoma have been linked to this disposal practice. Authorities have called for the volumetric reduction of 27 wells in response to the quakes.
Another issue with natural gas is the possibility of leaks. A methane leak from a gas operation displaced residents of Porter Ranch, California this month. The governor of California declared a state of emergency.
The California leak is considered the worst environmental disaster since the Gulf BP spill. It is releasing the equivalent emissions of 4.5 million cars each day. Methane began spewing October 23, 2015 and is still leaking.
Natural gas is touted as a fuel that reduces carbon emissions. Its use has been advanced by President Obama’s political policies. The 2015 Clean Power Plan boosts renewables and natural gas as carbon-free substitutes for oil.
The promotion of natural gas is controversial among energy policy experts. Critics cite the potency of methane and the dangers of drilling against its use. Supporters claim a cleaner fuel option due to its lower carbon emissions.
Offshore drilling for natural gas is becoming a huge area of investment. Shell opened natural gas wells off the Irish coast recently. Israel has approved the development of offshore drilling operations.
These countries hope that offshore drilling for natural gas will bring them greater energy independence. They also consider natural gas a cleaner fuel alternative to oil. However, offshore drilling draws controversy as it damages marine environments.
Natural gas represents great wealth for countries that possess it. Qatar has created a big business producing liquefied natural gas (L.N.G.). The Arab country ships L.N.G. to lucrative Asian clients like China, India, and South Korea.
Qatar once relied on fishing and pearl diving to drive its meager economy. Now it is the wealthiest country by output per capita in the world. The United States and Australia are eager to follow suit by pursuing their L.N.G. resources.
Hydraulic fracturing or fracking is the process used to extract natural gas. Water, sand, and chemicals are injected into rock at high pressure to release the fuel. Fracking is a major issue surrounding the production of natural gas in the United States.
The US Geological Survey recently linked fracking to earthquakes in eight states, including Oklahoma. Oklahoma historically experiences two earthquakes a year above 3 on the Richter scale. The 1,427 Oklahoma quakes experienced in 2014 and 2015 are attributed to fracking activity.
Natural gas production is set to increase going into the future. Earthquakes and methane leaks will also likely increase. Time will tell whether natural gas is a clean fuel or an untenable environmental disaster.
Earthquakes in Oklahoma Raise Fears of a Big One. January 7, 2016. The New York Times.
Oklahoma: Cuts Ordered For Wastewater Wells. January 14, 2016. The New York Times.
Fracking shakes the American west: ‘a millennium’s worth of earthquakes’. January 10, 2016. The Guardian.
No Short-Term Fix for California Methane Leak. January 7, 2016. The New York Times.
Governor Declares Emergency over Los Angeles Gas Leak. January 6, 2016. The New York Times.
State of Emergency Declared as Huge Gas Leak Forces Californians to Flee. January 6, 2015. Buzzfeed News.
State Regulators Investigate New Health Concerns Caused by Natural Gas Leak in Porter Ranch. January 15, 2016. CBS Los Angeles.
As California Methane Leak Displaces Thousands, Will U.S. Regulate Natural Gas Sites Nationwide? January 14, 2016. Democracy Now.
California State of Emergency over Methane Leak. January 7, 2016. BBC News.
Shell Opens Natural Gas Wells off Irish Coast. December 30, 2015. The New York Times.
Israel Grants Approval for Development of Giant Offshore Gas Field. December 17, 2015. The New York Times.
Liquefied Natural Gas makes Qatar an Energy Giant. August 5, 2015. The New York Times.
President Obama’s New Energy Economy Relies on Renewables and Natural Gas. January 13, 2016. Forbes.