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A closer look at the environmental impact of natural gas

by Alan Markow, published

It seems the natural gas industry is booming these days because of new technology to extract energy from shale down below the earth's surface.  As a result, gas supplies are increasing rather than decreasing, and prices are falling for a clean burning power source to heat our homes, cook our food, and even run our vehicles. 

The secret of getting more natural gas from shale is a process called Hydraulic Fracturing, or "Fracking."  It involvs sending a slurry of chemicals and water down into the earth that breaks the shale and releases the gas.  The water and chemicals stay below the surface, and the gas is expelled above ground where it can be collected and turned into fuel. 

I felt good when I first heard about fracking and the boom in natural gas.  It sounded like at least a partial answer to the need for more U.S. produced energy.  Then I watched a film on HBO called Gasland, in which people who live nearby some of the fracking sites could no longer rely on their groundwater.  It was so thoroughly polluted by the gas that the water could literally be set on fire as it ran out of the tap. 

This week in the New York Times, there was also an article about Europe's resistance to removing natural gas from shale, and while the words "water pollution" were never mentioned, there was clear indication that the Europeans were concerned enough to slow down the development.

Gasland points out the immense amount of U.S. land that is being harnessed for gas development and the potential environmental impact across this area.  But, the film is at its best when it tells the story of individuals and how their lives have been changed for the worse by the noxious fumes and polluted water apparently caused by fracking. 

Frankly, I wish that Gasland was a trumped up polemic with no basis in reality.  But, that's not the way it looks to me.  If you watch the film, you'll find out that the industry has received exemptions from most EPA regulations on clean water – all of it carefully arranged through the highest levels of the federal government.  Check out the website and you'll read about the disinformation campaign against the film and its producer by the American Petroleum Institute. 

We live in an age when greed trumps all, when the good of the nation plays second fiddle to the good of corporate profits, and when corporations can spend on politics with impunity.  Maybe fracking is just the solution we need, and that long-term, there won't be any dire consequences.  But, thank goodness we still have the freedom to independently speak up through films such as Gasland.

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