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The Lowdown on Natural Gas and Hydraulic Fracturing

By Dr. Mirele Goldsmith

Natural gas is a fossil fuel formed hundreds of millions of years ago out of the decaying remains of plants and algae in ancient oceans. Natural gas is found in a variety of geological formations. In the past, natural gas wells were drilled in areas where layers of impermeable rock lay above more porous, oil and gas rich sediments containing reservoirs of gas. The gas is extracted by drilling a well through the impermeable layer to release the gas below.

Most of the natural gas used in the United States is produced domestically or imported from Canada and transported via pipelines. Natural gas also can be cooled to liquid state — liquefied natural gas — to be transported by tanker ships and trucks where pipelines do not exist.

Usage

In the United States, about 30 percent of natural gas is used for electric power; about 25 percent is used for industrial uses, such as producing steel and glass, and as a raw material; about 20 percent is used in residences for heating and to power appliances; and about 15 percent is used in commercial facilities. Most of the remaining gas is used for oil and gas industry operations and a tiny amount is used as vehicle fuel. The top natural gas consuming states are Texas, California, Louisiana, New York, Florida and Illinois.

Recent Developments

The natural gas industry uses the term “unconventional” for gas deposits that are more difficult to extract than those described above. These deposits include: deep gas formations occurring 15,000 feet or more below the surface; “tight gas” contained in impermeable rock; shale gas contained in layers of sedimentary rock; coal-bed methane that occurs with coal; geopressurized zones where gas occurs in sand or silt under layers of clay; and methane hydrates occurring in permafrost. New technology has made it possible to extract gas from some of these unconventional formations.

Figure 1: The remainder of U.S. natural gas, by type, that is technically recoverable, as of 2010.

Positives

In comparison with coal and oil, burning natural gas produces fewer emissions of air pollutants, including carbon dioxide, per unit of heat produced. This is why many homes and power plants, especially in cities, have switched to gas from oil and coal. According to the Energy Information Administration, producing one million British thermal units of heat with natural gas results in 117 pounds of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. Burning the equivalent amount of oil results in 160 pounds, and burning the same amount of coal results in 200 pounds.

Negatives

Natural gas extraction and production poses risks to land, air and water similar to those posed by other fossil fuels. The extraction process involves the destruction of the natural environment. Wastes generated in the drilling process are toxic and are often treated inadequately. Transportation of gas over long distances in pipelines or in tankers brings the risks of spills to far-flung communities.

As unconventional drilling has expanded, new risks have drawn attention. For example, hydraulic fracturing — also known as hydrofracking or fracking — is a process used to extract gas from shale formations. This technique involves injection of large quantities of water mixed with sand and chemicals into a well to fracture the rock and release the gas.  It may cause earthquakes and poses significant risks of water pollution through multiple pathways.

Pollution

Burning natural gas causes greenhouse gas emissions, albeit fewer than those caused by burning other fossil fuels. Additionally, it is important to understand that natural gas primarily consists of methane, which is a greenhouse gas 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide. Methane is released when natural gas leaks from wells, storage tanks, pipelines, and processing plants. If natural gas cannot be used, it is flared — burned off in a process that worldwide consumes the equivalent of more than 20 percent of the United States’ gas consumption every year, according to the World Bank. This is safer than releasing it into the atmosphere, but when gas is flared other dangerous compounds are released into the air. Preliminary studies suggest that overall, if emissions throughout the process of extraction, production and transportation are taken into account, natural gas may be just as great a contributor to the warming of the atmosphere as other fossil fuels.

Figure 2: Although overall extraction volumes of natural gas reserves continue to increase, the average amount extracted per well, measured in thousand cubic feet per day per well, peaked in 1971.

Recommendations

Natural gas provides one quarter of the energy consumed in the United States, and the use of natural gas in Israel is expected to increase as a result of the discovery of offshore deposits in the Mediterranean Sea. Many environmental experts view increasing use of natural gas as a positive because of the lower greenhouse gases emitted in comparison to other fossil fuels. However, even these experts recommend that natural gas be considered a bridge fuel that can help us make the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

In addition to the damage done to the atmosphere, the production of natural gas has many other environmental impacts. Many areas where gas is found are in pristine natural areas on land and under the seafloor. Drilling in these places is inherently dangerous to natural environments and resources. Transporting natural gas in pipelines results in spills, and transporting it as liquefied natural gas puts pressure on coastal areas where port facilities are being developed. Liquefied natural gas also poses risks from potentially devastating explosions.

The rapid expansion of hydrofracking in the past decade is generating significant opposition. Shale formations currently being exploited or vulnerable to hydrofracking are present in more than 30 states. The largest area is the Marcellus Shale, which runs under the northern Appalachian Basin through New York, Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, northwestern New Jersey, western Maryland, Kentucky western Virginia, most of West Virginia and a small part of Tennessee.

Accidents and leaks, along with new scientific studies, have raised awareness that hydrofracking is not adequately regulated. Hydrofracking is exempt from many federal laws that typically regulate industrial activities, and state regulators do not have the tools and resources to monitor this highly decentralized practice. Campaigns to ban hydrofracking, enact a moratorium on drilling, and to enact much stricter regulations are active in several states.

The energy industry has invested heavily in advertising to convince the public that natural gas is the fuel of the future and to insure that natural gas production is exempt from regulations that apply to the extraction of other fossil fuels. Despite what the industry claims, natural gas is not a clean fuel. Natural gas production must be strictly regulated and must be viewed as a transitional fuel, at best.

Follow-up online
U.S. Energy Information Administration
World Resources Institute factsheets:
Israel: http://tinyurl.com/israelenergyfactsheet
United States: http://tinyurl.com/usenergyfactsheet
Energy Justice Network Natural Gas Factsheet
Natural Gas Supply Association
Food & Water Watch
COEJL’s background info on fracking
Info on fracking in Israel

Statistics: 2010 Natural-Gas Consumption
United States: 522,000,000 metric tons
Israel: 8,000 metric tons
World: 2,013,000,000 metric tons

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Dr. Mirele Goldsmith is the director of the Jewish Greening Fellowship, an initiative of the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, and principal of Green Strides Consulting. Her clients have included UJA-Federation of New York, BBYO International, the Foundation for Jewish Camp and the Supportive Housing Network of New York’s Green Housing Initiative. She is a Strategic Sustainability Consulting certified Green Auditor, and she serves on the boards of Hazon and the American Friends of the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership. Goldsmith is also the lead organizer of Jews Against Hydrofracking. She completed her doctorate in environmental psychology at the City University of New York.

The Jewish Energy Guide presents a comprehensive Jewish approach to the challenges of energy security and climate change and offers a blueprint for the Jewish community to achieve a 14% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by September of 2014, which is the next Shmittah, or sabbatical, year in the Jewish calendar.

The Jewish Energy Guide is part of COEJL’s Jewish Energy Network, a collaborative effort with Jewcology’s Year of Action to engage Jews in energy action and advocacy.The guide was created in partnership with the Green Zionist Alliance.

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