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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

This summer’s statistics on electricity use and generation included a significant gem: Over the last 12 months, power generation from coal has dropped to a three-decade low.

That’s party-worthy news for the climate, for air quality, for folks who live near power plants and for the natural-gas industry, which is partly responsible for coal’s decline. Just days later, however, the Trump administration crashed the shindig, causing a major buzzkill.

No, the president’s attempts to revive coal have not succeeded. But on Sept. 18, the Interior Department snuffed out new rules aimed at lowering the oil and gas industry’s methane emissions, just days after the Environmental Protection Agency started the process of euthanizing its own methane regulations. This is a bummer not only for the planet, but also for the natural-gas industry’s efforts to portray its product as the clean fossil fuel.

Coal began its climb to dominate the electricity mix in the 1960s, peaking in the mid-2000s, when power plants burned about 1 billion tons per year, generating about half of the nation’s electricity—and an ongoing disaster. Donald Trump likes to talk about “clean, beautiful coal.” It’s anything but. The smokestacks that loom over coal power plants kick out millions of tons of planet-warming carbon dioxide annually, along with mercury, sulfur dioxide, arsenic and particulates, all of which wreak havoc on human health. What’s left over ends up as toxic (sometimes radioactive) piles of ash, clinkers and scrubber sludge.

When natural gas is burned to produce power, however, it emits only about half the carbon dioxide of coal, and virtually none of the other pollutants associated with burning coal. So during the 2008 election season—when climate politics were less polarized than now—both parties pushed natural gas in different ways, with Republicans chanting, “Drill, baby, drill,” and Democrats calling natural gas a “bridge” to greater reliance on renewable energy sources. At the same time, advances in drilling were unlocking vast stores of oil and gas from shale formations, driving down the price of the commodity and making it more desirable to utilities.

As a result, natural gas gobbled up a growing share of the nation’s electricity mix, while coal’s portion withered. In 2008, natural gas generated 21 percent of the electricity in the United States; now, its share is 33 percent. Coal use, meanwhile, plummeted from 48 percent to 29 percent over the same period. In consequence, the electric-power sector’s total carbon dioxide emissions have dropped by 700 million metric tons over the last decade, with an attendant decrease in other harmful pollutants. Every megawatt-hour of coal-fired electricity that is replaced by gas-fired electricity is a net win for the planet—and the humans who live on it.

Except when it’s not. Natural gas has an Achilles’ heel: When it is sucked from the earth and processed and moved around, leaks occur. The main ingredient in natural gas is methane, a greenhouse gas with 86 times the short-term warming potential of carbon dioxide. Every punctured pipeline, leaky valve and sloppy gas-well completion eats away at any climate benefits. And if methane’s leaking, so, too, are other harmful pollutants, including benzene, ethane and hydrogen sulfide. And so the fuel’s green credentials, and one of the industry’s main marketing tools, end up wafting into thin air.

When the Obama administration proposed rules that would make the oil and gas industry clamp down on methane emissions, it was a gift, not a punishment. Not only would people and the climate benefit; the natural gas industry would be able to sell itself as a clean fuel and a bridge to the future.

The Obama-era rules are similar to those passed in Colorado in 2014, with the industry’s support. Far from being onerous, they simply require companies to regularly look for and repair leaks and to replace faulty equipment. Some companies already do this on their own; the Obama rules would simply mandate this responsible behavior across the board. That’s why the Republican-controlled Congress ultimately decided not to kill the rules. That, however, did not discourage Trump.

Trump is not being “business-friendly” by ending the rules. Rather, he is once again indulging his own obsession with Obama and destroying his predecessor’s legacy, regardless of the cost to human health and the environment. Trump’s own EPA estimates that its rule rollback will result in the emission of an additional 484,000 tons of methane, volatile organic compounds and other hazardous pollutants over the next five years. Meanwhile, the death of the Interior Department’s methane rule will add another half-million tons of pollutants to the air. In the process, it will erode the pillars of the once-vaunted natural gas bridge.

Then again, maybe the time has come to let that bridge burn. We get 70 times more electricity from solar sources now than we did in 2008, and renewables hold 11 percent of the total share of power generation. Perhaps just as significant is a less-noticed fact: Electricity consumption in the U.S. has held steady for the last decade, even dropping during some years, despite a growing population, a burgeoning economy, harder-working air conditioners and more electric devices. That means we’re becoming more efficient and smarter about how we use energy. If we keep this up, we’ll be able to cross that fossil fuel chasm—no matter how many bridges Trump burns down.

Jonathan Thompson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine Disaster.

Published in Community Voices

After one of the many attempts to plug the methane-leaking well at the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility in the Los Angeles suburbs, the thing erupted like a geyser, spewing not only natural gas, but also the muddy slurry that company technicians had pumped into the well.

It reminded me of a phenomenon that disrupted small-town life in southwest Colorado in the 1990s, during a coalbed methane boom. An abandoned natural gas well, drilled decades earlier, would periodically erupt, shooting natural gas, water and debris some 200 feet into the air. Locals dubbed it Old Faithful.

Aliso Canyon is a bit like a gigantic, catastrophic version of the geyser gas well of yore. Since the leak was first noticed in late October, some 4.6 billion cubic feet of natural gas have leaked into the atmosphere. Most of that is methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas, along with smaller amounts of other compounds such as benzene, a known carcinogen, and mercaptan, a sulfur compound added as an odorant to the gas. The mercaptan, especially, has been hellish for nearby residents of Porter Ranch, and as many as 3,000 residents have evacuated.

Celebrity pollution activist Erin Brockovich and others have equated the Aliso Canyon leak to the BP oil spill, on land. Indeed, in infrared images, the methane plume does look like thick crude billowing into the sea. But the BP spill was a rare occurrence, while massive methane leaks are horribly common, happening in America’s oil and gas fields every day.

The aforementioned Old Faithful was in the San Juan Basin of Colorado and New Mexico, one of the most productive natural gas fields in the nation. Locals were more amused than alarmed by the gas geyser, even though it was within spitting distance of an old folks’ home. (Watching the earth projectile vomit was more entertaining than another Lawrence Welk re-run, apparently.) People around the area had bigger things to worry about back then: Dangerous levels of methane were showing up in crawlspaces and drinking-water wells, with occasionally disastrous results, and vast swaths of vegetation were dying off due to methane displacing oxygen.

Aliso Canyon’s leakage rate has averaged just less than 1,000 metric tons per day (a rate which slows over time as pressure on the reservoir is relieved). That qualifies it as thelargest point-sourcemethane emitter in the nation, leaking at about twice the rate of the Walter Energy coal mine in Alabama, which tops the Environmental Protection Agency’s greenhouse gas inventory.

But add up all the oil- and gas-related methane point sources in one hydrocarbon-producing basin, and the story changes. San Juan Basin oil and gas facilities emitted 291,162 metric tons of methane during 2014, according to the EPA inventory. But the inventory doesn’t account for smaller producers—geologic seeps that have been exacerbated by oil and gas development, abandoned wells or undetected leaks. So actual emissions from oil and gas facilities far exceed the EPA’s greenhouse gas inventory, as numerous studies have shown. Take all that into account, and the San Juan Basin’s total oil and gas emissions rate is probably closer to 500,000 metric tons per year, or 1,400 tons per day, a far higher rate than at Aliso Canyon.

The same sort of leakage is occurring in other hydrocarbon-producing basins, as well, from the Permian to the Piceance, impacting both the climate and the folks who live nearby. As atmospheric scientist Gabrielle Petron told me last spring: “Your air is being impacted. You live on the edge of the gas field.”

Which is not to say that the Aliso Canyon leak isn’t a big deal. It is. And a similar catastrophe could happen elsewhere, and probably already is, on a smaller scale. The Aliso Canyon storage facility is a huge, depleted oil field that enables Southern California Gas Company to store natural gas, much of it from the San Juan Basin and other gas fields in the interior West, and then withdraw it when needed. Another 415 or so of these underground facilities are scattered across the country. Some are in depleted oil and gas reservoirs, others in aquifers or salt caverns, and many are on the edge of urban or suburban areas. With a storage capacity of 86 billion cubic feet, Aliso Canyon is among the largest, but a depleted field near Baker, Mont., can store up to 164 billion cubic feet of gas.

Major incidents, at least ones that directly impact nearby populations, at underground storage facilities have been few and far between. When they do happen, though, they tend to be spectacular. In 2004, ignited gas spewing from a failed valve in Moss Bluff, Texas, created a 1,000-foot column of flames, and in 2001, explosions resulting from gas migrating from an underground storage reservoir in Kansas killed two. Surely many more climate-damaging methane leaks go unnoticed. In depleted oil fields, old wells (the bad one at Aliso Canyon was drilled in 1953) are prone to fail. Meanwhile, a 2013 study published in the Hydrogeology Journal found that in aquifer storage units “gas loss is a possibility via … faults, inadequate caprock seals, or improperly completed wells.”

These facilities fall in a regulatory gray area. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has jurisdiction over units that are used for interstate commerce, but the agency regulates rates and storage levels, not operations or safety. Others, like Aliso Canyon, are regulated by respective states, often inadequately. (The lack of a safety valve on the leaky Aliso well apparently did not violate California rules.)

New federal rules on oil and gas industry emissions from the EPA and the Bureau of Land Management may help the situation in the gas fields, but the rules will apply to few, if any, underground storage facilities. Colorado regulates oil and gas industry emissions, but not facilities “downstream” from processing plants, like underground storage. A pipeline safety bill introduced in Congress late last year would create minimum safety standards for all underground storage, but its chances of passing are limited.

As long as it is left unfettered, methane leakage, be it on a catastrophic Aliso Canyon-level or the everyday emissions from the gas fields, will continue to sully natural gas’ image as a climate-friendly fossil fuel. Still, it may take a while to catch up with coal, at least over the long term. The Aliso Canyon well is emitting methane at a rate equivalent to 32,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide each day (using a formula based on an assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). The Navajo Generating Station in northern Arizona, meanwhile, spews carbon dioxide at a rate of 47,000 metric tons per day. That’s like the climate’s version of the BP oil spill—and it’s happening round-the-clock, with no end in sight.

Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News, where this story first appeared.

Published in Environment

On this week's extra-patriotic Independent comics page: Jen Sorenson takes a look at natural gas; Red Meat loses its hair-trimming gear; The City looks at modern-day American freedom; and in the finale of Roland and Cid, the boys say goodbye.

Published in Comics

Perhaps drilling rigs should be allowed in cities, towns and even into our own metaphorical backyards. It would be good for the environment. Maybe not your personal environment, but more broadly for our environment.

Community planners for decades have urged mixed-use development, in which we combine work, play and shopping in closer physical proximity. Lately, we’ve expanded the idea to food. Some people have always supplemented their pantry with backyard gardens, and now we have the concept more formally called “urban agriculture,” a phrase that embraces in-town farms.

Growing your own victuals feels good and connects you more directly with the weather and changing climate. Soil fertility becomes something personal, and creepy-crawly things become a delight or demons, depending upon their role in your personal ecosystem.

Energy, however, remains an abstraction—and many people would like to keep it that way. Fort Collins, Colo., has banned fracking, which amounts to a ban on drilling, as few wells are drilled these days without fracking. In fairness to those municipalities, legitimate concerns remain about the technology’s impacts on water and air quality.

Yet the bigger picture is that we all use natural gas. Milk doesn't originate in a carton, nor water in a faucet. With natural gas, it’s even worse. We never actually see, smell or taste the gas, only the heat it produces or, in the case of electricity, the light it provides or the cool air it produces via air conditioners. That’s a huge disconnect. Bridging that gap would be useful.

Consider the debate in Carbondale, Colo. Locals have high regard for a nearby area called Thompson Divide, where they graze their cattle, go mountain-biking, and hunt wildlife. I can’t vouch for it personally, but I take them on their word that it’s a special place.

Carbondale, however, wasn’t named after somebody named Bill Carbon. Coal was mined intermittently in the Thompson Divide area for a century, and drillers have poked around there previously—and perhaps not delicately so. Now comes the question of whether the federal government will issue extensions for drilling in the basin.

The Aspen Times, reporting on a recent meeting attended by 300 people, said the current quandary was best summarized by a local student. While everyone who uses natural gas must, at some level, support energy extraction, she said, some places should be off-limits. And Thompson Divide is one of them.

OK, fair enough. But then came another local resident who warned of the “wolf at the door” that had already devoured half of his county with drilling. And, reports the Times, he got a resounding “no” when he asked the crowd if it was worth “poisoning the Earth” to extract more natural gas to feed the country’s addiction to fossil fuels.

It turns out that one protector of the last, best places commutes to the West Coast, where he oversees the manufacturing and retailing of a well-known line of outdoor clothing. That requires a 2,000-mile commute—a carbon footprint the size of Poland.

In reading about the Carbondale meeting, I was reminded of the 2006 South Park episode called “Smug Alert,” in which the local residents buy “Pious” cars, which makes them feel smug. Then clouds of “smug” originating from Hollywood, San Francisco and South Park threaten to converge over the Rocky Mountains in an apocalypse of self-righteousness.

It’s easy to be smug about drilling for natural gas. Legitimate questions from citizens haven’t fully been answered by industry and state regulators, and it’s not clear that standards and oversight have been strengthened enough to protect the environment. If this is indeed going to be the giant bridge fuel to deliver us into a renewable future, it needs some work.

But how can we say no, no, no to drilling, when our actions say yes, yes, yes to the demand that drives the drilling—especially in an air-conditioning-dependent place like the Coachella Valley? Carbondale and Pitkin County don’t want drilling at Thompson Divide? Fair enough. Like Fort Collins, they’re ahead of the curve in energy-efficiency programs. But to say absolutely no to drilling? They’d need to say no to energy use, too. Mandating passive-home construction that tamps down energy use to almost nothing would be one major step.

Right now, we all have grime on our hands from drilling. But for some people, the grime seems to be invisible. Maybe a drilling rig down the street would at least remind us of the part we all play in this dirty business.

Allen Best is a contributor Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He lives in the Denver area and publishes Mountain Town News, an online newsmagazine.

Published in Community Voices

Promised Land wants to be a message movie, but it's too messy to deliver that message coherently.

Originally slated to be Matt Damon's directorial debut, it was instead directed by his pal Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting), who, with this and last year's mawkish Restless, finds himself in a bit of a slump. Although Damon relinquished the director's chair, he shared screenwriting duties with John Krasinski, and both have big roles in the film.

Damon plays Steve Butler, a likable corporate pawn for a natural-gas company who is sent to a farming town with a mandate to sell the community on allowing its presence. That presence would mean a lot of "fracking," a natural-gas extraction process that involves deep drilling—and some possible environmental side effects.

Steve is presented as a virtuous fellow who looks to do well and get ahead. He's just about to get a big promotion, and with a wisecracking co-worker at his side (Frances McDormand), he's set to sell fracking to a town filled with differing opinions on what to do with the land. Some, like Paul (Lucas Black), are looking for a big payday, while others, like Frank (a well-placed Hal Holbrook), look to get in Steve's way.

Also looking to get in Steve's way is Dustin (Krasinski), an environmentalist who claims that fracking wrecks farms and kills livestock. He posts pictures of dead cows around town and playfully intimidates Steve at local bars. He even makes a move on Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt), the small-town girl Steve has his eyes on.

Is Promised Land trying to preach that fracking and natural gas are bad choices? I really couldn't tell you. The film is more preoccupied with giving us a nice, happy, pleasant outcome for Steve. Van Sant wants you to leave this movie thinking Damon's Steve is just swell—even if he did put people's livelihoods and land in jeopardy.

There's also a big twist that is nothing but a screenwriting stunt to throw viewers off-course. It completely undermines any "message" the film is trying to deliver, and comes off as something that would never, ever happen.

It's too bad. I liked the idea of Van Sant tackling a simple farm-town story—but the Damon/Krasinski screenplay betrays him in the end. Damn your pen, Matt Damon!

Damon's acting is OK. He's playing somebody similar in mannerisms to the character he played in We Bought a Zoo. (He wrote Promised Land with Krasinski while taking breaks from making Zoo.) His acting is better than his writing. The same can't be said for Krasinski, who both writes and acts badly here. Love the dude on The Office, but I'm lukewarm on him at the movies thus far.

As for McDormand, she rises above the material and makes her moments worth watching. The same can be said for DeWitt, who made a habit this year of showing her face in movies unworthy of her. She also starred in the mediocre Nobody Walks, the lousy The Odd Life of Timothy Green and The Watch. (I am one of the few critics who actually liked that one.)

Promised Land left me feeling weird, and I don't think that was its intention. Sure, it made me curious about fracking, but the film chickened out and failed to deliver a meaningful statement on anything. Van Sant has made an awkward movie that will be fracking forgotten by this time next year.

Promised Land is playing in theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews