Peter Shelton

Unnatural Gas, Or The Wrong Way to Denver

Posted in Gas Pains, Watch columns by pshelton on July 7, 2011

It wouldn’t have done to close my eyes while driving I-70 through Garfield County. But I was tempted, in order to shut out the hundreds of natural gas drill rigs and compressor fans and well heads and supply dumps and road cuts and rows of fracking-fluid semis and lumbering red Halliburton trucks in the right lane.

We pretty much had to take the freeway to Denver this weekend after an errand diverted us to Grand Junction. It’s not my first road choice, because of the above upsets – seeing huge swaths of western Colorado turned into industrial sacrifice zones.

This time the gauntlet was even more aggravating thanks to a comment I’d heard at the last Ouray County Commissioner meeting about natural gas having been designated an “alternative fuel” by the state of Colorado.

Alternative?! Since when does a fossil fuel, extracted at a heavy cost to the environment and local health, and which burns only marginally cleaner than coal or gasoline, become alternative? The oil and gas industry is playing semantic tricks like never before. And all kinds of folks from the state capitol to my beloved New Yorker magazine are buying the ruse.

It starts with the term natural gas. Sounds like natural peanut butter. Good for you, right? But the natural only refers to the fact that the petroleum exists, thousands of feet down in the sandstone, in a gaseous, not a liquid or solid state. Oil comes out of the pipe a liquid; natural gas comes out a gas. The industry lucked into that handle; there’s absolutely nothing healthy about it.

In fact, since natural gas production was exempted from having to comply with the Clean Water Act early in the Bush II administration (thank you very much former Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney and your secret energy task force), this immensely profitable business has been getting away with murder. All the while pretending to be saviors.

Forget for a minute the damage to the surface: the bulldozing of drill pads, the permanent insults to wildlife and wild land, the destruction of private property values. Underground, each hydraulically fractured well requires up to two million gallons of water, trucked to the site by hundreds of semis. Each hole gets about 80,000 pounds of chemicals to enhance the shattering of the rock. We know there are as many as 500 separate chemicals in these fracking cocktails, but we aren’t allowed to know what they are, even though 70 percent of them are not recovered and remain in the ground. Scores of these chemicals are known carcinogens. (Activists have done some successful sleuthing.) But the recipes are proprietary, you see, like the formula for MacDonald’s secret sauce, and industry players don’t have to reveal them. Who knows what will become of our aquifers over time?

The air above isn’t doing any better. Formerly one of the most pristine places on earth, the headwaters of the Green River in western Wyoming is now bathed in a brown cloud much of the winter. Plumes of volatile organic compounds spew from condensate tanks. They can be breathed in or absorbed through the skin. They can cause liver, kidney and central nervous system damage in animals and humans. So far, the industry has successfully dodged the issue.

They’re getting away with it all in the name of jobs and thinly veiled xenophobia. I was horrified to see a full-page ad by an industry trade group in The New Yorker recently that lied outright about what natural gas is and can do. The top half of the page shows a pump price for unleaded gasoline, $3.68, and the headline “PROBLEM: Instability in other countries, and we pay the price. It’s time to break out of our addiction to foreign energy.” Down below there is the “SOLUTION: The answer is right here: American natural gas.” And so on.

Don’t think about the fact that you can’t pump natural gas into your car, that drilling more natural gas in the Rocky Mountains (or Pennsylvania or New York) will do nothing to reduce gas prices or lesson our reliance on foreign oil. Don’t think through that.

They want you to think of natural gas as an “alternative” energy. Like wind and solar. The willful fiction (right up there with “clean coal”) fills me with road rage. Ellen has to sing, or force-feed me celery – anything to keep my mind off the scenery.

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