Natural Gas Boom Turning into an Environmental Bust

Natural gas is a cleaner burning fuel than coal and oil, which has added to its popularity over the years with consumers and energy companies.  But, this energy boom is turning into a big bust for the environment. A New York Times report investigating thousands of pages from federal and state agencies and drillers reveals the dangers of natural gas drilling to clean water and clean air. 

Otsego County (NY) Gas Group

According to the New York Times, hydraulic fracturing or fracking, the process of extracting natural gas, produces wastewater spiked with radioactive, corrosive, and cancer-causing materials. This toxic cocktail is hauled to sewage plants that cannot fully treat the water and rarely test for radioactivity. The plants end up dumping the pollution into rivers, lakes and streams. This problem is especially bad in the Keystone State: 

In Pennsylvania, these treatment plants discharged waste into some of the state’s major river basins. Greater amounts of the wastewater went to the Monongahela River, which provides drinking water to more than 800,000 people in the western part of the state, including Pittsburgh, and to the Susquehanna River, which feeds into Chesapeake Bay and provides drinking water to more than six million people, including some in Harrisburg and Baltimore. 

Other parts of the country, east and west, also have similar concerns over the impact of hydraulic fracturing on their water resources: 

Gas has seeped into underground drinking-water supplies in at least five states, including Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and West Virginia, and residents blamed natural-gas drilling. 

In addition to polluting drinking water, fracking is also making clean air a greater challenge: 

Air pollution caused by natural-gas drilling is a growing threat, too. Wyoming, for example, failed in 2009 to meet federal standards for air quality for the first time in its history partly because of the fumes containing benzene and toluene from roughly 27,000 wells, the vast majority drilled in the past five years. 

The benefits of natural gas are starting to take a backseat to the negative impact hydraulic fracturing is having on clean air, clean water, and public health. It may be that the promise of a cleaner alternative to oil and gas may not be a promise energy companies can keep.

Published: March 1, 2011