Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s attitude toward natural-gas “fracking” seems to depend on whether it occurs somewhere that would be politically inconvenient for him.
McAuliffe (D) said recently he’s determined to prevent the controversial drilling method from intruding on the rugged Appalachian beauty of the George Washington National Forest, where opposition has been strong.
His spokesman said the governor also thinks the potential threat to water supplies creates “a high hurdle” for fracking to win approval at proposed drilling sites east of Fredericksburg and within a two-hour drive from downtown Washington.
Good for McAuliffe.
But the governor has no problem encouraging more fracking in West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania. He just bestowed his blessing on a $5 billion, 550-mile pipeline that will carry fracked gas from those states to Virginia and North Carolina.
Pragmatic or hypocritical? You make the call.
The governor’s approach shows how the nation’s rush to embrace the natural gas “revolution” is steamrolling valid worries over risks to the environment.
We’re planning multibillion-dollar investments in pipelines and other gas infrastructure despite doubts over whether the booming industry is safe in the long run. Its rapid growth could harm the climate and pollute water supplies.
Fracking even causes small earthquakes, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
Most of the country’s leaders, from President Obama down, have touted gas as a “clean” fuel. This is handy, because technological advances in hydraulic fracturing of shale rock, or fracking, have produced an abundance of gas.
In our region, McAuliffe isn’t alone. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), who generally has a sterling record on environmental issues, voted in July for a permit to help construction of a $3.8 billion liquefied natural gas export facility at Cove Point in Calvert County on the Chesapeake Bay.
Admittedly, natural gas is cleaner than coal by one key measure. It releases half as much carbon dioxide when it’s burned. Substituting gas for coal as the fuel for electric power plants has helped the country slow emissions of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas that’s gradually baking the planet.
But this strategy isn’t going far enough to solve the problem. New federal data released Friday showed U.S. carbon dioxide emissions rose in the first half of this year, extending an upturn that began in 2013.
The report ought to embarrass Obama, who had told a U.N. climate summit three days earlier that the United States was committed to reducing such emissions by the decade’s end.
Furthermore, anybody who’s paying attention knows that serious questions remain about whether natural gas offers a genuine answer to the need for clean energy. Here are three:
■Most important, increased gas use also means more gas leaks. And natural gas itself, or methane, is a very potent greenhouse gas.
Research increasingly suggests that gas offers little or no climate advantage over coal, unless methane leaks can be reduced during the drilling, processing and distribution of gas.
“There are some very high-risk bets [on gas] being placed by people in very high places,” said Anthony Ingraffea, a Cornell University professor and president of Physicians, Scientists and Engineers for Healthy Energy.
“They get an ‘F’ in chemistry, because they’re only talking about carbon dioxide. The atmosphere also responds to methane,” he said.
■The jury is still out on whether increased use of fracking threatens water supplies. That’s especially important because such drilling is happening closer to heavily populated areas.
To fracture shale rock and release gas, drillers inject millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into the earth under high pressure.
“All of this is super water-intensive and high risk, but they say trust them that they’re never going to screw up the water supply,” Mike Casey, owner of a clean technology consulting firm in Northern Virginia, said.
The D.C. Water and Sewer Authority and other local water utilities oppose fracking in the George Washington forest for fear it would threaten the cleanliness of the Potomac’s headwaters.
■Last, government and academic studies say fracking has increased the frequency of earthquakes in Oklahoma and other states.
“Fracking causes small earthquakes, but they are almost always too small to be a safety concern,” the U.S. Geological Survey says.
“Almost always” safe is scant consolation if your house is the one that’s rattled.
What to do? Strictly regulate methane leaks and go slow on fracking until we know more about the hazards. Above all, do more to reduce energy use, and to promote solar and wind power.
When it comes to clean energy, they’re the real thing.
For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.