Is firing up the global methane industry really the answer to greenhouse-gas-driven warming?
The US is projected to become a net exporter of energy in the 2020s, in large part because of increased natural gas exports, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA). That may sound like good news at first. That is, until you consider that natural gas is 95 percent methane and that methane produces 84 times more short-term warming than carbon dioxide. We’re about to wrap the planet in the global methane industry, keeping the world on fossil fuels for the ‘foreseeable future”. Is that a smart solution to greenhouse gas driven warming? Fossil fuel industries want us to think so.
Long-term contracts are being signed now for gas import facilities from Siberia to Chile. In the United States we’re told that our fracked gas and oil production will make us energy independent. In reality, export facilities are being planned across the US. Fourteen new applications have been submitted to federal agencies for liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals from Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico. Exporting natural gas, instead of supplying just US markets, will raise energy prices here in the US, says EIA.
“Under my presidency, we will accomplish complete American energy independence,” President Trump claimed in a speech to a petroleum conference in Bismarck, North Dakota. But energy independence was never the goal for the fracked gas push. Export was always the real endgame. It’s estimated that one million new gas and oil wells will be drilled and fracked across America to supply new export markets. Gas and oil companies will also be installing new pipelines, compressor stations, dehydration stations and processing plants to carry this gas to market. A huge network of industrial installations will be moving into millions of American backyards.
Toxic emissions from these facilities include benzene, formaldehyde and hydrogen sulfide. With the new Trump Administration’s policy of deregulation everywhere, there’s not much hope regulators will reign in widespread pollution. While industry officials and many politicians like to say the environmental effects are harmless, thousands of Americans have found out otherwise.
Residents of Porter Ranch, California found out what can happen when you live next to massive gas infrastructure. In October 2015, the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility facility suffered a massive blowout in one of their wells. Fifty tons of methane an hour was venting into the atmosphere, the largest gas leak in US history. For the first few days, the operator, SoCal Gas lied. They told residents the overwhelming putrid odor was from “routine maintenance.” When the lie was found out, the company told neighbors they should expect no serious ill health effects.
Instead neighbors reported re-occurring nosebleeds, trouble breathing, dizziness, shortness of breath, migraine headaches. Pets died. Two elderly people died. Even with these obvious health threats, SoCal Gas fought responsibility. In the end the company was forced to relocate 20,000 residents.
It took nearly four months before engineers repaired the leak. Meanwhile, 100,000 tons of methane escaped. Health officials believed the crisis would be over when the leak was capped. Yet families returning home got sick all over again and no one seemed able to tell them why. It’s believed the toxic chemical mercaptan, added to the natural gas to give it that rotten egg smell, was sickening people.
Across the country, in Eight Mile Alabama, people are familiar with mercaptan. It’s been poisoning their town for eight years. The town is home to a natural gas processing plant where the chemical is added to gas before it travels out through pipelines. Mobile Gas, the plant’s owners says a small feed line was hit by lightning eight years ago. The company claims the leak was repaired and reported to the state’s regulator. Yet court documents show at least six thousand gallons of mercaptan spilled and seeped in the soil over a four-month period. The state regulator has no record of Mobile Gas reporting the spill and though Mobile Gas denies the lingering health effects and stench are from their operations, the state regulator confirms there is no other explanation.
The residents of Eight Mile have been living with the same health effects suffered by Porter Ranch residents. Bloody noses to trouble breathing, eyes watering and migraine headaches. But no one in Eight Mile was evacuated. No public health agency, state or federal, is investigating the health effects suffered by residents. While the state has forced Mobile Gas to attempt a cleanup, mercaptan has seeped into the soil and contaminated the water table. According to environmental scientist Wilma Subra, the contamination will last for decades, perhaps centuries. With little hope of a real fix for the problem, residents are left living in a contamination zone.
Ray Kemble knows what it’s like to get stuck living on toxic property. The aquifer under his tiny town of Dimock Pennsylvania was contaminated eight years ago by drilling and fracking operations. On any given day his well water can look like radiator fluid, toxic milk or just plain mud. He’s had to buy water ever since. As do 10 or so of his neighbors who also lost their water wells to fracking related contamination. These families all had water that was clear and good to drink before drilling and fracking happened in their neighborhood. Yet the operator involved denied their drilling or fracking had any effect on the area's water.
That’s a neat trick since state testing proved the driller, Cabot Oil & Gas was responsible. Cabot was forced to settle a lawsuit filed against it by the state of Pennsylvania and a class action lawsuit brought by harmed families. Scientific evidence, confirmed by the courts, proves Cabot is lying when it claims they are not responsible for the aquifer’s pollution, yet they persist in denying responsibility. And they get away with it. Even when the federal toxic registry deemed Dimock’s water unsafe to drink, citing dangerous pollutants such as 4-chlorophenyl-phenyl ether, Cabot still maintains on their website that resident’s water was always polluted and that they had nothing to do with it.
The industry has a playbook for dealing with victims of contamination: Deny the problem. Buy off some of the victims in exchange for silence agreements. Overwhelm the rest with an army of lawyers. Control the science. Capture the agencies that regulate them. Flood the media with propaganda. That's been the general strategy of the gas and oil industry dealing with those they’ve harmed. Emboldened by the Trump administration’s desire to decimate regulations designed to protect the public, we should expect more of the same.
As this huge new industry moves into towns and farmlands across America, to drill one million new fracked wells, we should expect more families to face health effects, environmental damage and financial loss. The most dangerous aspect to American families though, may be the gas industry’s cover up of the real rates their facilities leak methane. Methane leakage rates from the gas industry have been a hotly debated topic for a decade. The industry claims methane emission rates, from production to end-use, are very low. Recent research conducted by independent scientists has found exponentially higher rates. The Trump Administration has already removed requirements for operators to report their methane emissions.
That’s dangerous because even US policy makers can’t agree on what the actual leakage rate is for this formidable greenhouse gas. What will the emissions look like in countries where regulations are even weaker, or non-existent? The scary fact is no one is looking. The IPCC didn’t include leakage from the global methane industry in their latest forecast. While gas production is excepted in nations like Argentina, Indonesia and Pakistan, tight regulation of emissions is not.
So, why are we addressing the problem of greenhouse gas driven warming with the global methane industry? Rex Tillerson, Exxon CEO for forty years, now US Secretary of State put it best, “The world is going to have to continue using fossil fuels, whether they like it or not.” The choice has been made for us by companies far more powerful than American citizens or their elected representatives, people for whom profits are the end-game. We’re moving ahead with the global methane industry, even if it kills us.