No, Cornell, natural gas is NOT the answer

I wanted to address a recent press release from Cornell regarding natural gas. It relates to a study done by Cornell Professor Lawrence M. Cathles, and published in the journal Geochemistry, Geophysics and Geosystems, which is a peer-reviewed paper (here’s a refresher on why that matters). His findings are summarized in the following paragraph from the release:

ITHACA, N.Y. – No matter how you drill it, using natural gas as an energy source is a smart move in the battle against global climate change and a good transition step on the road toward low-carbon energy from wind, solar and nuclear power.

He came to this conclusion after he

[…]reviewed the most recent government and industry data on natural gas “leakage rates” during extraction, as well as recently developed climate models.

He concluded that no matter the timeframe considered, substituting natural gas energy for all coal and some oil production provides about 40 percent of the global warming benefit that a complete switch to low-carbon sources would deliver.

First off, I would like to point out the dangers of using industry data. The companies dealing in natural gas are mostly the same ones that have been dealing in oil for the last fifty years or more. These are the same people who have lied about oil spills, lied about pipeline safety, lied about tanker safety, and spent millions lying about climate change. Given that track record, industry data are highly suspect.

When we add to that the abysmal response capability, and the blatant disregard for cleanup planning and research, and the tendency for oil companies to make disaster plans based on the assumption that everything that can go right, will go right, we have a source of data that is about as unreliable as you can get.

Moving beyond all that, however, I have another concern that has nothing to do with the reliability of the study itself.

It is possible that this study is completely right, and that by going wholesale into natural gas, we can drastically cut all of our greenhouse gas emissions, and even if that was the case, I STILL would oppose expanding of natural gas. Why? Because we’re not just concerned with preventing warming anymore. We got the first real warnings about climate change over fifty years ago. We’ve spent the last half century ignoring the problem, and as a result, the warnings have come true, and the planet is warming, and will continue to warm for the rest of our lives.

While we still need to cut our greenhouse gas emissions (we CAN make things much worse if we fail to do so), we also need to turn our attention to the effects of the current and future warming. One of the most severe impacts will be a decline in available drinking water. This is partly because we’ve been draining our  planet’s underground water at an unsustainable rate, but also because with the amped-up cycle of drought and flooding, we won’t be able to rely on rain to replenish groundwater. There is serious concern around the globe about the possibility of wars over drinking water.

Hydraulic fracturing – the process through which we extract natural gas – puts what little underground water we have left at risk. The companies involved have insisted that their methods don’t contaminate aquifers, but the method creates long, uncontrolled vertical fissures deep under the aquifers and then keeps them open, and there is no way to tell for sure what leaks where. Also, did I mention how unreliable these people are?

As to water contamination, while we should all remember that correlation does not imply causation, it does “waggle its eyebrows suggestively and gesture furtively while mouthing ‘look over there’.” When companies start hydrofracking for natural gas, tapwater from nearby wells starts lighting on fire.

This is not an acceptable risk. Never mind that it’s propping up oil companies. Never mind that they’re probably lying about greenhouse gas emissions. Never mind that the profits will go to more obfuscation and obstruction. Never mind that we have the technology to get off fossil fuels WITHOUT natural gas. Screw all of that for now, and focus on this one point: Humans cannot survive beyond three days without water, on average, and they are messing with our water. This is beyond insane. In any sane country, this would be grounds for mobilizing the armed forces in self defense to keep these people from literally poisoning the well.

We must look beyond dealing with emissions, and start also dealing with the realities of this new world we have created. You think the gold standard is a good idea? In fifty years we will all know what the Bedouins learned centuries ago. Drinkable water is the most valuable resource on this planet, and fossil fuel companies are destroying it in pursuit of money.

So no, Professor Cathles, I don’t think we should rely on natural gas as a transition fuel. I think we should fight it with everything we have, and if it comes down to it, we should physically stop the process of extracting it in self defense. We don’t need it, and we can’t afford it.

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