All Out of Love

Until a few years ago, most national environmental organizations endorsed natural gas as a “bridge fuel” to renewable energy, arguing that it was cleaner than oil and coal. Now many of these groups are taking a second look, though few are ready to endorse an all-out ban on fracking.

In August the board of the Sierra Club approved an update to its energy resources policy which says, in part, “The production, transport and burning of natural gas remains a significant source of CO2 and methane. The Sierra Club’s goal is to develop and use as little natural gas as possible and to wean ourselves from most fossil fuels, including natural gas, as swiftly as possible and by no later than 2050. Our strong preference is to replace existing nuclear and coal plants with clean renewable energy whenever possible, not natural gas.”

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This past summer, the Sierra Club set up a hydrofracking task force to study how this technology—especially horizontal fracking in shale formations—impacts the environment and local communities. Bruce Hamilton, deputy executive director of the Sierra Club says their organization is supporting local moratoria until safeguards are put in place. “Similarly, where there are areas where any kind of gas development would be inappropriate, we have proposed that it be banned from those specific areas, like New York City and Pittsburgh. We have not supported bans for large geographic areas like the state of New York or the United States.”

Hamilton says the Atlantic chapter, which covers New York State, would like to support a state-wide ban, but the Club hasn’t acted on it yet. “It’s hard because New York State uses a lot of gas and doesn’t produce hardly any—yet. To say we’re going to ban natural gas but at the same time we’re going to continue to import it creates a policy dilemma for the Club because it’s basically saying as long as the impacts are in Texas or the Mideast, it’s fine, we just don’t want them in our back yard.”

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None of which means that he, or the Sierra Club, consider natural gas a “clean” source of energy. “It’s a fossil fuel, it’s dirty, it’s leading to major contamination of the planet, both from a global warming standpoint and an ecosystem impact standpoint,” Hamilton says. “At one point when people thought natural gas was twice as clean as coal from a greenhouse gas emission standpoint, many environmental groups suggested natural gas was a good alternative and what we used to call a ‘transition’ or ‘bridge’ fuel. But that basic assumption…was based on faulty, outdated information.” In other words, before the technology came along to exploit the very tight shales via horizontal slickwater hydrofracking

Hydrofracking “is much more problematic,” Hamilton says. “It takes more chemicals and water, the degree of geologic fracking that takes place is much more extensive and there’s much more potential for leakage. Plus you have more water disposal problems. Shale formations also have a lot of radioactivity associated with them. Our feeling is that none of this is inherently unsafe. You could reduce 90% of methane emissions just by plugging the holes, but they don’t.”

In that respect, Hamilton can almost see the need for a ban—at least in the short term. “I can’t point to a single place where it’s being done right. It would be a disaster for the world and we’d never solve our climate problem if we just replaced coal with natural gas.”

Another of the Big Ten environmental groups, the Natural Resources Defense Council, has also reconsidered its earlier support for natural gas as a bridge fuel, as hydrofracking has come to represent a larger and larger share of the country’s supply. “The challenge is we have a large country with huge energy demands,” says Amy Mall, senior policy analyst with NRDC. “We’re pushing energy efficiency and renewables very hard. There are 500,000 producing gas wells in this country—we don’t need to drill new wells to meet our needs. We have excess gas in storage. But it’s not realistic to ban fracking until we know we can replace that with cleaner sources of energy.” Although she says natural gas can never be a clean fuel—it’s too resource-intensive, and uses too many toxic chemicals—she adds that “there’s vast room for improvement.”

The World Resources Institute provided a lot of the scientific backing, decades ago, for positioning natural gas as a bridge fuel. No one at WRI would speak on the record for this story, beyond saying that the organization is doing a thorough re-evaluation of its position on fracking.