MINNEAPOLIS — Natural gas has become a Big Energy darling. It’s undeniably cleaner than coal, and its proponents say it creates jobs. It’s also helped drive down gas prices and weaken our dependence on the Middle East.
But, as the people of one Los Angeles neighborhood can attest, it’s not perfect.
In October, just a few months before outrage erupted over the poisoned water in Flint, Michigan, residents of Porter Ranch started noticing a strange smell in the air.
It was sulfur-y, like rotten eggs, and potent enough to make your eyes water.
After fielding calls from residents concerned about a possible home gas leak, Southern California Gas Company sent someone to check things out. The gas company said there was no leak.
For a week, as the smell grew worse, SoCalGas continued to deny that there was a leak.
But there was a leak — a methane leak thats been described as the worst environmental disaster in the U.S. since the BP oil spill. And it was coming from Aliso Canyon, home of the country’s second largest natural gas reservoir, which enjoys the same lax oversight and spotty regulation as the rest of the natural gas industry.
In addition to being a potent greenhouse gas, methane makes up about 80 percent of natural gas. And until just around Valentine’s Day, the SoCalGas methane leak continued, spewing the equivalent yearly emissions of two coal-burning power plants.
Those exposed to the gas, which is treated with an odorant called mercaptan, have exhibited a range of symptoms, from headaches and nausea to rashes and spontaneous bloody noses. More than a third of the town’s families have been relocated, and the town’s elementary school closed for the semester.
Now, you must be thinking, “There’s no way SoCalGas can get away with this, right?!” Well, it’s not clear whether SoCalGas was in violation of any regulation, either knowingly or negligently.
As Samantha Page noted for Think Progress:
“SoCalGas … has said that its maintenance of the wells at Aliso Canyon didn’t actually violate any standards of upkeep. It doesn’t matter, for instance, that a safety valve on the failed well was removed in the 70s and never replaced, because there is no legal requirement for an emergency safety valve.”
While California boasts a relatively diversified energy portfolio, with renewable energy sources accounting for 25 percent of its energy production, like many states, it’s running hard on natural gas. And all the benefits touted by natural gas cheerleaders? Those go right out the window once there’s a leak, like in Porter Ranch.
The town of 34,000 is not the only one affected by spills and leaks of this supposedly “clean energy.” A new study, conducted by Stanford University researchers, confirms what residents of Pavillion, Wyoming, have long suspected: Their water has been contaminated by fracking.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a method of using high-pressure injections of water and toxic chemicals to crack open underground rock formations, releasing oil or gas. The increasingly popular fossil fuel extraction method is why the U.S. has been living high on the natural gas horse lately. It’s also incredibly dangerous — it’s been linked to increased earthquake activity in frack-happy states.
The people of Pavillion noticed weird tastes and smells in their drinking water in 2008. Three years later, the EPA got involved. It issued a report linking the funny tastes and smells to fracking, but then it backtracked on its own report, refused to issue a final version, and tossed the job off to state officials.
To date, state and federal officials have failed to issue a report.
And, back in drought-stricken California, the fracking industry is sucking up more water than the state can possibly have to spare — as much as 2 million gallons per day. In the wake of the Aliso Canyon leak, SoCalGas is now warning of summer blackouts. So, now the state will be both water- and energy-strapped during the hottest months of the year.
Still, recent figures suggest there’s something better on the horizon. Last year, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, wind and solar energy saw double the investment of fossil fuels. That’s right: With coal, natural gas and oil prices all tumbling, renewables are looking better each day.
And this trend isn’t likely to stop anytime soon. Bloomberg’s Tom Randall reports: “The reason solar-power generation will increasingly dominate: It’s a technology, not a fuel. As such, efficiency increases and prices fall as time goes on.”
Companies are getting better at storing renewable energy, so that it’s more efficient even in cloudy or stagnant conditions. While the up-front costs are steep, the long-term payoff is undeniable. And even though fracking has been packaged and sold as a job-creation miracle, the solar industry is adding jobs twice as fast as the rest of the economy.
Even in coal-loving, frack-happy West Virginia — even there, solar power is taking off. And it’s doing so despite efforts by the state’s coal-stained lobby and natural gas-bags to stop it.
“We’re keeping West Virginia an energy state — it’s always been an energy state … Solar is the next step in that,” Dan Conant, who returned to his home state and started Solar Holler in 2013, told MintPress News last year.
While it’s clear that people and the planet stand to lose from over-reliance on fossil fuels, it remains unclear who doesn’t win as renewable energy investment and adoption grow. Have you ever heard of a war over wind resources? Or a refugee crisis spurred by access to the sun? What about a wind or solar leak that devastated entire towns? Me, neither.
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