Not Truly “Clean Energy”
Today, we present our final installment in Minnesota 2020’s series of columns focusing on environmental policy issues. It’s part of our continuing collaboration with Macalester College's Environmental Studies Department and its students.
When I left home for college this fall, I expected to leave a controversial environmental issue behind. When I got to Macalester, however, I realized Minnesota, too, was in the center of a hydraulic fracturing (hydrofracking) debate.
I grew up in Westerlo, New York, which borders the region in the center of America’s natural gas extraction controversy.
New York, Pennsylvania and other northeastern states house large shale formations that exist deep below ground. They contain natural gas deposits that proponents of hydrofracking would like to tap into.
Minnesota’s Mississippi River bluffs contain the sand needed in hydrofracking. Despite the claimed economic gains from new natural gas wells, neither New York nor Minnesota needs the negative impact associated with hydrofracking.
Natural gas extraction supporters point to the fact that natural gas burns more cleanly than oil or coal, while also releasing fewer air pollutants than either as reasons for extraction. They point to it as a “bridge” to cleaner, renewable sources of energy as we distance ourselves from foreign, dirty fossil fuels.
However, to be blunt, natural gas is still a fossil fuel that contributes much more to global warming than renewable energy sources such as wind or solar power. When burned, natural gas still releases carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas and one of global warming’s top contributors. It also releases smog-causing components.
More than one percent of all natural gas leaks from well pipes and other storage facilities and transportation utilities. An IPCC (Intergovenmental Panel on Climate Change) study showed that methane, the main component in natural gas, is an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide; 25 times more efficient at trapping heat over 100 years, and 72 times more effective trapping heat over a 20 year period.
Back to hydrofracking. It involves large volumes of water mixed with sand and other chemicals, collectively known as “frac fluid.” This fluid is blasted into naturally occurring shale fractures at high pressure, to further widen these cracks, allowing natural gas to escape into a well and be pumped to the surface.
Potential problems arise when the frac fluid, now known as “flowback fluid,” is pumped back to the surface. This liquid contains a toxic mix of heavy metals, trace amounts of uranium, and other toxic chemicals which occur naturally in black shale. These materials can leech into and contaminate underground aquifers and water supplies, severely jeopardizing the health of area residents.
The recent documentary "Gasland" illustrated hydrofracking’s impact on communities and people throughout the United States. One of the most popular scenes involves a resident lighting tap water on fire.
Once flowback fluid reaches the surface, the problems don’t suddenly stop. The fluid is often stored in large open pits either on or off-site, which can cause major problems in the event of a spill or a precipitation-induced overflow. This fluid is usually highly saline and can cause extensive damage to freshwater streams, lakes, and other ecosystems.
Minnesota has valuable “frac sands” deposits in the southeastern part of the state. There is already a large mine in Ottawa, Minnesota which produces sands so perfect for the process that they have earned a nickname within the industry—“Ottawa White.”
Goodhue County and other southeastern Minnesota communities are potential mining sites. Excavation, especially in Bluff Country, could harm ecosystems and the surrounding environment. Goodhue County and other communities have already called for a moratorium on further mining until more information is available.
Ironically, both wind and natural gas are in the same supposed “clean energy” category and rising investment in natural gas exploration, which hydrofracking attracts, could seriously hamper wind power development.
Natural gas prices reached their lowest level in the last nine years last winter as a result of growing supplies. If consumers turn to natural gas, its impact could last for decades. Wind power prices have also declined, which some sources attribute to an attempt to compete with natural gas suppliers.
However, before we get caught up citing natural gas and other fossil fuels’ cheap upfront cost, let’s consider their overall price, including externalities like environment and health costs. Then, we can make a more accurate overall economic comparison to renewable energy.
Simply put, natural gas extraction is not in our long-term best interest. Hydrofracking only produces another fossil fuel, and continues our dependence.
Minnesotans have many options; pressure community leaders to impose moratoriums on frac sand mining and make clear your renewable energy preferences for the state’s future.
Minnesota’s Next Generation Energy Policy Act of 2007 was an important step, setting deadlines for reducing energy use and greenhouse gas emissions and placing limits on the building of fossil-fuel fired plants in the state. Forward looking policies such as these are key to encouraging investment in renewable energies.
State and nationwide reductions in energy use are also an option. By reducing energy demands, we reduce the leverage oil and gas companies have.
Cap and trade legislation, recently implemented in California is a key development in this area, and if executed correctly could have far-reaching implications. By creating emissions standards and taxing excess releases, it incentivizes greener technologies’ development while reducing energy demand.
All of this contributes to the ultimate goal: an end to our dependence on fossil fuels and a move to truly clean energy, which requires research and development.
Mike Galgay is a sophomore studying political science and environmental policy. He also plays catcher on Macalester’s baseball team.