Must the natural gas industry clean up its act?

October 13, 2009

Natural gas is regarded as a relatively clean source of energy but there is mounting evidence that it has a dirty side.

My colleague Jon Hurdle has reported on Wyoming water woes that have been linked to the booming gas industry. You can see his stories here and here.

In August U.S. government scientists reported that they had for the first time found chemical contaminants in drinking water wells near natural gas drilling operations, fueling concern that a gas-extraction technique is endangering the health of people who live close to drilling rigs.

The Environmental Protection Agency found chemicals that researchers say may cause illnesses including cancer, kidney failure, anemia and fertility problems in water from 11 of 39 wells tested around the Wyoming town of Pavillion in March and May this year.

On Monday, I reported that high concentrations of harmful compounds have been found in the air in a north Texas town that is in the heart of the region’s gas industry, according to a report released by an environmental consultancy.

The study by Wolf Eagle Environmental Engineers and Consultants found high concentrations of carcinogenic and neurotoxin compounds in the atmosphere at seven locations around the rural town of DISH, which is about 50 miles northwest of Dallas.

Carcinogens are linked to cancers while neurotoxins are toxins that act on nerve cells.

The report said the levels of several of the substances exceeded those that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) uses as benchmarks or triggers that could prompt it to investigate or take action. This does not mean that these levels are an immediate hazard but the town’s mayor Calvin Tillman told me that he would like to see the several compressor stations in the area shut down until people are reassured that they are not emitting toxins.

DISH is on the Barnett Shale, a large geological formation in north Texas that contains vast amounts of natural gas.

What do you think? Is natural gas a viable option in the quest for an energy source cleaner than coal, which emits about twice as much carbon dioxide? Or must the industry first clean up its own act?

(Photo: A worker at EnCana’s Frenchie Draw gas-drilling rig in central Wyoming guides sections of steel pipe into an 11,000-foot well on September 19, 2009. REUTERS/Jon Hurdle)

12 comments

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Per the article natural gas needs to clean up its act, but the technology to do so is available now, as opposed to clean up methods for “Clean Coal” which are at least 10 years out.

Posted by Bernie | Report as abusive

Anybody who pollutes groundwater should presumably be stopped cold. Maybe they paid for the right to extract the gas, and private property is important, but they presumably did not, nor generally should anyone be allowed to, buy the rights to ruin the water. A very similar issue is pumping by water bottlers. It’s apparently using up most of the groundwater in some areas. Ground water should be rationed according to acres owned, or some such thing. As for natural gas, the world has a great deal of it, and we must stop using it as soon as possible, because burning it releases CO2. We should stop using coal and oil first, but let’s skip the paroxysms of self-congratualtion.

Posted by Pete Cann | Report as abusive

I want know if the carcinogens e neurotoxins found associated with natural gas are too discharged by motors that burn it. Thank you.

Posted by Jorge | Report as abusive

there’s going to be a dirty side to anything we do, but natural gas has got to be by far the best stop-gap measure we have to bridge us over to something better. With minor modifications we can use our existing cars. NG produces half the emitions of coal and oil, and best of all, we could be self sufficient using it. It doesn’t mean we don’t still need to find another green source.

Posted by RLMorad | Report as abusive

I have only recently become aware of this because drilling seems imminent in my area but what people need to know (that most people in my area did not) is that

1) What they are doing is not traditional, vertical drilling it is a new technique called “hydrofacturing”

2) Hydrofracturing involves pumping some kind of chemical cocktail underground (to fracture rock and reach pockets of gas) and the chemical mixture is considered “propietary” — haliburton will not tell the public what they are pumping under their feet.

3) Natural gas drillers are exempt from clean air and clean water regulations. (A gift from the Bush/Cheney administration.)

Posted by Bruce | Report as abusive

I truly expected more concise reporting rather than open-ended supposition from Reuters.
A) the water was surely CBM de-watering in the N. Powder River that would have been state and BLM approved
B) what were the chemicals found near Pavillion, Wyo. and what is the mineral and coal mining history there besides O & G?
C) Texas (CEQ)findings, what were they being chemically specifically? If emitted by compressors it would be eveident in testing without doubt.
D) DISH is not “on the Barnett Shale”, please think before writing or speaking, you creditability will vanish
*** Methyl-mercury emitted from coal-fired generators has poisoned fish in thousands of streams via condensation/precipitation and our kids may not ever be able to eat fresh fish again (see USGS study reported in London’s Financial Times, but not in the U.S.!)
Clean Coal is an oxymoron: on the surface and burned in the atmosphere to residual mercury in your childrens children

Natural gas is the best bet for us breaking the addiction to foreign oil, but it is harboring a dirty secret.

California gas utility send out a warning with their bill quarterly in response to CA. Proposition 65 stating the hazards of using the natural gas they deliver.

The Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, commonly referred to as Proposition 65, requires the Governor to publish a list of chemicals “known to the State to cause cancer, birth defects, or reproductive harm ” It also requires California businesses to warn the public quarterly of potential exposures to these chemicals which result from their operations.

Pacific Gas and Electric Company uses chemicals in its operations that are “known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects, or reproductive harm.”

For example, PG&E uses fossil fuels (natural gas and petroleum products) in its operations. The combustion of fossil fuels can generate by-products such as carbon monoxide, soot, and formaldehyde. These chemicals are “known to the State of California to cause cancer, birth defects, or reproductive harm.” Use of natural gas in home or commercial appliances can also produce these combustion by-products. Properly operating gas appliances create less carbon monoxide and soot.

PG&E conducts sandblasting at power plants and compressor stations, which can release sand. Sand naturally contains crystalline silica, a chemical “known to the State of California to cause cancer”

Natural gas, in its original state, contains radon and benzene, chemicals “known to the State of California to cause cancer.” It also contains toluene, a chemical “known to the State of California to cause reproductive harm.” The benzene and toluene are destroyed when natural gas is burned. Radon does not burn but is released with the combustion by-products. Radon and natural gas combustion by-products can generally be removed through appliance vents and other exhaust systems.

I need to correct myself a little bit. The 2005 energy bill exempted hydrofacturing operations from the safe drinking water act.

It’s bizarre to think that a procedure involving pumping toxic chemicals underground would be exempt from the laws protecting our drinking water, especially when this procedure is carried out in areas where most people get their drinking water from underground wells.

Posted by Bruce | Report as abusive

the technique the oil companies are using is called horizontal drilling. They start out drilling a vertical well (4000 ft to 7000 ft deep) and using directional drilling tools they slowly make the well horizontal, they can continue drilling horizontally for another 5,000 ft to 10,000 ft. This allows the well to have more contact with the pay zone thus reducing the amount of wells you have to drill if you were strictly doing vertical drilling. once the well is drilled, depending on the formation (pay-zone) they will hydraulically fracture the rock to allow more oil and gas to flow. This fluid comes in contact with the rock at around 4000 ft to 7000 ft, depending on the well. While they are drilling the well the oil company puts metal pipe in the hole and cements it in from surface to a depth required by the government. They are not drilling 100ft then just pumping all these hazardous chemicals in the ground, they are thousands of feet deep but I would think it is possible for the chemicals to reach the ground water. This is the best process we have so far to get all the fossil fuels we need, I’d love to stop using fossil fuels and start using renewable energy but are we ready to give up our way of life/standards of living before we have a feasible alternative?

Posted by Jason | Report as abusive

The statements made regarding the EPA\’s investigation in Wyoming are incorrect. EPA\’s study is ongoing at present and no specific connection has been made between tentatively identified compounds (TIC\’s) and oil and gas activities in the Pavillion (Wyoming) field. EnCana provided extensive information to Mr. Hurdle regarding the best practices used to ensure well integrity and protection of groundwater. Much of this information was either ignored or minimized.

EnCana remains committed to the Pavillion community in helping provide clarity and will continue to work in concert with EPA. EnCana believes it is important to note that a secondary round of testing will occur, which we hope will provide scientific clarity with respect to drinking water in this area.

Doug Hock
Director of Public & Community Relations
EnCana Oil & Gas (USA) Inc.

I am living on top of a large drilling project, the Fayetteville Shale project, and early on developed ringing in my ears that I thought was exposure to the fluids used on the drilling rigs, but now I wonder if it isn’t from the methane, itself. There have been fish kills in the area from seepage into rivers and streams. Also, the nearby Greers Ferry Lake water began to have an awful odor which showed up in our drinking water here.

I am one who is convinced that for a number of reasons that all these drilling projects should be shut down. My number one reason is that methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and call me crazy, but it seems that the longer this project goes on, the more potent our tornadoes and storms have become. I can date the beginning of the worst weather(which is escalating yearly) from the second year of the drilling project.

Apart from that, I don’t see any sense in continuing drilling here, since the gas market is obviously glutted, and there is no place to put it.

Posted by Jane Ford | Report as abusive

as a weekend flyfisherman who fishes every time i get a chance in PA. and am hearing almost daily about the pollution dangers from this process of drilling and the amount of water it uses i am getting sick to my stomach

Posted by tom baublis | Report as abusive