A TV ad features an attractive young woman advocating production and use of natural gas to solve the nation’s energy problems. It graphically illustrates how hydraulic fracturing of gas-containing shale deposits releases the gas which is piped to the surface. Whether the process results in contamination of ground and surface water is problematic. In 2011 the EPA issued a report stating that fracking was to blame for polluting an aquifer deep beneath the town of Pavillion, Wyo., the first time such a claim had been based on scientific analysis. The study was to be peer-reviewed, presumably by impartial scientists. Rather than a study being conducted by scientists appointed by the EPA, the agency decided that the state of Wyoming would be responsible for the study. The research would be funded by EnCana, the drilling company whose wells may have polluted the aquifer.
This was one of several decisions by the EPA that have caused environmentalists to be skeptical of the agency’s taking responsibility for ensuring that fracking is not harming the environment. Others include the following: Over the past 15 months EPA has closed an investigation in Dimrock, Pa., saying that the level of contamination was too low to be of concern; abandoned its claim that a driller in Texas was responsible for methane gas bubbling up in residents’ faucets, despite the fact that a geologist hired by EPA confirmed that it was; sharply revised downward a 2010 estimate that gas leaking from wells and pipelines was contributing to climate change; a failed to enforce a statutory ban on using diesel fuel in fracking.
Fracking for gas in places in the east and midwest, for gas and oil in Texas and Oklahoma, and for oil in North Dakota and Montana has fattened the pocketbooks of many landowners and brought prosperity to many municipalities, among them Sanford, N.Y. The town council there enacted an ordinance barring residents from complaining about the drilling procedure at town council meetings. The ordinance was rescinded under threat of a First Amendment lawsuit by the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Meanwhile, an abundance of cheaper, cleaner burning natural gas as a fuel for electric energy production is putting a squeeze on coal companies. The Drummond Company, headquartered in Alabama, recently announced scheduled layoffs of 425 workers at its mine in Oakman in Walker County, and Walter Energy is warning of a possible reduction of its workforce at a mine in Tuscaloosa County by 85 to 100 people. Union official Darrell Dewberry says it’s not because of a shortage of coal, but it’s the market.
Not long ago, wood products were being recommended as a desirable source of fuel to fire electric power plants. The Natural Resources Defense Council takes exception. It contends that forests in the Southeast are threatened by a growing demand for wood to fuel power plants, “a practice that produces more carbon pollution than coal, gas, or oil.” “Until recently,” it states, “electricity produced by burning plant material, called biomass, was widely considered an important ‘renewable resource’ along with technologies like solar, wind, and geothermal. But biomass was never meant to include whole trees, much less entire forests.” The group says recent evidence discredits the use of whole trees to produce energy, because it increases carbon pollution while simultaneously destroying ecosystems that can never be replaced.
NRDC states, “Trees have less energy potential than coal or other fossil fuels…so to get the same amount of energy from trees as from fossil fuels, many more trees have to be burned, resulting in 40 percent more carbon emissions at the smokestack per unit of energy generated.”
In 2012 the United States was the largest exporter of wood pellets in the world, as the demand for wood fuel increased sharply in Europe. The North American Biomass Export Conference estimates that demand should hit 32 million tons by 2016 and rise to as much as 335 million tons per year by 2020. NRDC says, “These manufacturers clear forests, grind the trees into wood chips and pellets and ship them from ports in the Southeast to ports in Western Europe. Last year alone, wood pellet exports from southern states increased by 70 percent.”
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In 2007, 1.1 billion pounds of pesticides were applied on agricultural fields, in and around homes, and on golf courses, resulting in the deaths of 67 million birds, between 6 and 14 million fish, and goodness knows how many mollusks, crustaceans, butterflies, and beneficial insects.