Natural gas: Not safe, and not all that green

The
way natural gas promoters talk about their pet fuel, you’d think it was
green as clover and safe as baby oil. After the deadly San Bruno,
California, gas line explosion,
however, hawkers like natural gas billionaire T. Boone Pickens have
gone silent. No more calls to action and pleas to phone your member of
Congress to demand bigger subsidies.

The quiet is welcome. Let’s use that space to talk about all of the
drawbacks. We know how explosive plain old natural gas is (the photo
here is of a 2007 blast–they’re not so rare), and we know that we have
no idea where those big, aging pipelines are. National security and all
that.

But it doesn’t stop there. The current rage in natural gas extraction
is deep-drilling in shale formations, mostly in the Northeast and the
West. Its dangers have been soberly reported, mostly by the online investigative website ProPublica.
But even reports of flammable gas instead of water coming out of
kitchen faucets in drilling areas doesn’t fire the imagination like
100-foot flames and victims so incinerated they can’t be found.

The deep drilling, called “fracking,” puts drinking water supplies at risk. It trashes the landscape, and uses vast amounts of fresh water, most of which cannot be reclaimed, to force the gas upward.

If, as Mr. Pickens hopes, Americans will take to automobiles powered
by heavily subsidized natural gas, your local “gas” station would be a
big potential neighborhood bomb. Some of that natural gas would have to
be imported (yep, just like oil), in the form of heavily compressed
liquefied natural gas, stored in gigantic tanks near shore or onshore
until it’s warmed up and sent through a pipeline.

Pickens’ attempt to get Californians to fund his folly was defeated
at the ballot box, but he isn’t giving up. Nor are the drillers,
including Exxon, who dismiss all the bad news about fracking and insist
that it’s a tradeoff worth making. Even in frequently drought-stricken
Colorado, economic desperation has allowed drilling to continue.

At least San Bruno has gotten everyone’s attention. That modestly
cleaner fossil fuel isn’t so safe, and unlike an oil spill you can’t run
from it when pipelines explode.

Yet folks like Pickens want to siphon off tax dollars that could be
going to truly green energy. Even to Pickens, who also favors wind
energy, though on a gigantic industrial scale in remote places–also
maybe not the best idea.

We won’t green a nation with backyard windmills or a little rooftop
solar. But the point is that we need a public policy that assures green
investors that their money won’t go down the drain when Pickens sucks
their tax-credit milkshake dry.