The gall of gas megacorporations is surpassed only by the preposterousness of their claims. They spend millions each year trying to convince the public and our lawmakers of the benefits of “natural” gas (NG), but a quick look at their propaganda reveals some deep flaws.
Take this commercial by the Houston-headquartered multi-billion-dollar Spectra Energy as an example. In just a two-and-a-half minute attempt to woo people to NG, they actually make 15 claims that don’t hold water. In a world facing global climate woes, exploding population, dependence on foreign energy and inflation — what should we do? Turn to NG, according to Spectra. But here’s where their reasoning is just plain wrong.
1. Industry claim: “Natural gas is clean.”
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TRUTH: Here the industry is carefully trying to pull the wool over our eyes. You can’t just talk about burning gas versus oil once it’s in the furnace in your house; you have to look at the entire lifecycle of gas. The lifecycle cost of NG in terms of carbon dioxide and methane emission during its exploration, extraction, processing, and transportation to point of use, is no better than that of oil or coal and may even be higher than that of coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel.
2. Industry claim: “Natural gas is the cleanest-burning conventional fuel.”
TRUTH: Nope. See 1 and 3.
3. Industry claim: “Natural gas produces less carbon dioxide than coal or oil (45 percent less than coal, 30 percent less than oil).”
TRUTH: See number 1. Also, methane is 20-25 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, meaning it’s that much more effective in trapping heat in the atmosphere. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration:
Methane, carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and water vapor are the major greenhouse gases associated with the production, transmission, processing, storage, distribution, and use of natural gas. Emissions of these gases associated with natural gas, excluding water vapor, were about 20 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2007 (in carbon dioxide equivalent). Methane, the main component of natural gas, is released directly to the atmosphere when it leaks from natural gas wells and pipelines and processing and storage facilities. These methane emissions in 2007 were the source of about 25% of total U.S. methane emissions, but only 2.7% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.
Carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrous oxide (N2O), and water vapor are produced when natural gas is burned. Some CO2 is also released when it is removed from natural gas. Carbon dioxide emissions associated with natural gas in 2007 were about 21% of total U.S. CO2 emissions and 17% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions (excluding water vapor).
4. Industry claim: “Natural gas is domestically available.”
TRUTH: This is technically true, but at a very heavy cost domestically. And because it’s more lucrative in the current market to sell abroad, much of that domestic gas will end up being sold to other countries. Besides this, any gas that is added to the domestic market will not be replacing foreign oil or domestic coal or nuclear power; it will just be added to the energy grid.
Thirty-four states sit on gas; many of them have parts that have already been transformed into industrial wastelands. Do we want this for more states, such as New York, which is one of the next states on the chopping block? Or would we not be better off creating jobs in the renewable-energy sector and transitioning off fossil fuels now, while we still have a chance to slow (and, optimistically, maybe even halt) catastrophic global climate change?
Beyond this, nobody in the U.S. is going to get cheaper electricity or fuel because it’s “domestic.” Gas companies have pulled a bait-and-switch in coastal states, where gas pipelines were often originally permitted because the pipeline companies claimed to be putting them in place for import of NG. Yet once the permits were received and the pipelines laid, the industry revealed its true colors: much of this domestic NG will end up being exported because the price abroad is much better than the prices at home.
5. Industry claim: “Ninety-eight percent of all natural gas consumed in North America is produced within the continent.”
TRUTH: In 2009, net U.S. imports of NG were down, but they still represented 12 percent of total consumption. Canada and Trinidad and Tobago are the largest exporters of NG to the United States. Egypt almost tripled its exports to the U.S. in 2009 and remains the second largest source of liquid NG. At the same time, the U.S. exports NG mainly to Japan and Mexico, and in 2009 added South Korea to its list of NG export customers.
6. Industry claim: “Natural gas is abundant.”
TRUTH: It is abundant, but its presence hundreds and thousands of feet beneath the surface, trapped in tiny bubbles within naturally fractured shale, means its extraction is dangerous, dirty and foolhardy. Its high life-cycle greenhouse gas footprint means it will contribute mightily to further catastrophic global climate change, at a time when the universal consensus among the world’s leading scientists demonstrates that we must halt our greenhouse gas emissions before it’s too late.
7. Industry claim: “Enough natural gas has been discovered to supply North America for well beyond 100 years.”
TRUTH: No one really knows exactly how much natural gas exists until it is extracted. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates there are “2,587 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) of technically recoverable natural gas in the United States.” The Potential Gas Committee estimates “total U.S. natural gas resources at just over 1,836 Tcf.” Currently the U.S. uses 22,739 million cubic feet of natural gas per year. That means, if these rough estimates are right (and there is no way of knowing how right they are), the gas would last, at current consumption levels, between 80 and 113.76 years in the United States, but this excludes the other two countries that make up North America, Mexico and Canada.
8. Industry claim: “Natural gas usage is becoming even more efficient.”
TRUTH: Maybe so in its in-building use, but we’re decades away from technologies making it efficient enough; meanwhile, its usage is not attractive enough to warrant killing people and ecosystems, and poisoning our environment and landscapes, to get to it. And it is highly inefficient in its leakage of methane and other greenhouse gases during extraction and transportation.
9. Industry claim: “Natural gas is reliable.”
TRUTH: We can certainly rely on the fact that fracking will poison air, water, soil, food supplies and people; that there will be accidents that cause damage to property and kill people; and that its exploration, extraction, and related processes around the world will add untold amounts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, hastening catastrophic global climate change.
10. Industry claim: “Natural gas can be counted on as a primary fuel as well as the most reliable backup to renewable energies. Natural gas is there when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine.”
TRUTH: This is a moot point. Battery systems are available to store the energy produced by wind power when the wind isn’t blowing and by solar power when the sun isn’t shining (such as at night). And other renewable energy resources, such as geothermal, don’t have the environmental risks associated with gas; in fact, there are few if any risks associated with geothermal technologies.
11. Industry claim: “Natural gas is versatile” (heats, cools, provides electricity and transportation, is a main ingredient in a wide variety of products).
TRUTH: It’s not the only choice we have, and we don’t need to use it, and would be better off not using it, as an ingredient in textiles, cosmetics, home cleaning products, children’s toys, clothing, baby bottles, and food.
12. Industry claim: “Natural gas is safe.”
TRUTH: Tell that to the thousands of people around the country whose health has been adversely affected, and the many who have been killed in explosions and other accidents related to drilling for gas. (See number 13.)
13. Industry claim: “North America’s continental gas pipeline system is the safest mode of energy transportation in the world today.”
TRUTH: In a quick survey over the last decade alone there have been dozens and dozens of accidents with NG that have resulted in destroyed homes, catastrophic fires, and loss of life. On August 19, 2000 a natural gas pipeline rupture and fire near Carlsbad, New Mexico, killed 12 members of a family who were camping some 600 feet from the rupture. The pipeline, operated by El Paso Natural Gas Company, was found to be badly corroded; the company’s “corrosion control program failed to prevent, detect, or control internal corrosion within the company’s pipeline,” and government inspectors had not identified the deficiencies.
Most recently on September 9, 2010 in San Bruno, California, just south of San Francisco a 54-year-old high-pressure gas pipeline exploded at dinner time killing eight people and injuring many more, destroying 38 homes, damaging 120 homes and burning 10 acres of brush.
14. Industry claim: “Because NG is safe and efficient, it is used in [a high percentage of] restaurants, hospitals, offices, etc.”
TRUTH: It is used in restaurants, hospitals, etc., because it is cheaper than oil, has been considered cleaner than oil and coal (because of high investment by Big Gas in marketing and lobbying), and because there have been and are few options outside fossil fuels for these big institutions to use for electricity, heating and cooling.
Besides, “per-customer consumption [of NG] fell in 16 out of the past 19 years. On a weather-adjusted basis, U.S. residential consumption over the 19-year period (1990- 2009) fell from 95 thousand cubic feet (Mcf) per customer in 1990 to 74 Mcf in 2009, or 22 percent,” according to the U.S. Energy Administration’s Independent Statistics and Analysis report.
15. Industry claim: “Natural gas is needed now.”
TRUTH: What is needed are clean, renewable, non-fossil-fuel energy systems if we are to halt catastrophic global climate change, protect our ecosystems, protect our precious fresh water supplies, protect our health, and keep any more states, like New York, from becoming an industrial wasteland.
Maura Stephens, who works as the associate director of the Park Center for Independent Media, is a writer, theater artist, educator, and peace, justice, and sustainability advocate. She lives in central New York State.