Last week I wrote about climate change and our snowpack. As a follow up, you might not be surprised to learn that climatologists at Colorado State University just announced that 98 percent of Colorado is experiencing drought. This is an ominous sign, particularly for wildfire season.
Shortly thereafter, I ran across a Denver Post article that discussed the state auctions for unallocated water rights, which have traditionally gone to Colorado’s agricultural industry. This year the top bidders were companies that provide water for hydraulic fracturing, primarily for natural gas development, where each well requires 500,000 to 5 million gallons of water.
To be fair, natural gas’ virtues should be recognized. Natural gas is a domestic energy source; there is lots of it available thanks to advancements in hydraulic fracking; the fracking boom is creating jobs; natural gas ‘burns’ cleaner than coal; and it can be used as a transportation fuel instead of oil.
But, are the industry claims of natural gas being a ‘clean’ fuel accurate? Presently, no, neither in terms of greenhouse gas emissions or public health.
To focus on more localized issues, I’ll address emissions and climate change briefly. Here goes: When burned, natural gas emits less carbon dioxide than oil and coal. However, the gas drilling, transmission, and burning process emits far greater amounts of methane, which is roughly 25 times more potent in terms of its warming effect. To have a lesser warming effect than coal, for example, the gas system requires a leakage rate of less than 2.5 percent. A variety of Colorado studies have found leakage rates as high as 4 to 6 percent, essentially twice what is needed to reduce green house gas emissions.
There are also a number of reports illustrating the potential effects of gas development on public health. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has reported on extreme air pollution near fracking areas. The Colorado School of Public Health has reported on asthma and even increased cancer risks. And, a 2011 Duke University study found that water near fracking sites contains 17 times more methane than water not near fracking sites. These side effects are not foregone conclusions with gas development, but the possibilities certainly exist.
Community concerns include increased road building, recreational impacts, the development of environmentally sensitive and agricultural areas, and drilling on private land where the ‘landowner’ doesn’t own the mineral rights. As Randy Udall discussed in his March 13 presentation at the Wheeler, in 2008 over 2,000 wells were drilled in the Piceance Basin in western Colorado, with Garfield County becoming Colorado’s largest gas producer. EcoFlight, a local land conservation organization, has a gallery on its website (ecoflight.org) where you can view oil and gas development photos.
Community action groups like the Thompson Divide Coalition, the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, the Citizens for a Healthy Community and the Wilderness Workshop are leading the charge to raise awareness on many of these issues.
But, we need to be honest with ourselves. Natural gas will continue to be part of our near-term energy future in some capacity. Moreover, the majority of us are complicit in supporting natural gas development in at least some small way. Natural gas heats our homes, warms our soup, and in some cases keeps snow off our driveways.
If we truly want to limit the negative effects of gas development in western Colorado, we need to send a strong message that we are willing to conserve as individuals and as a community. Furthermore, as a regional community, we need to continue building an honest, inclusive conversation on development that includes topics like setbacks from agricultural land, road building, procurement and preserving natural spaces. The Roaring Fork Valley region has a long history of working together on and creating innovative solutions around impacts on our community and the environment. Natural gas development may be our biggest challenge yet.
Nathan Ratledge is the director of the Community Office for Resource Efficiency. This is the second in a series of five columns on energy issues.