Since 2004, there have been more than 11,000 natural-gas wells drilled in Pennsylvania.
At the same time, natural gas prices have plummeted by 80 percent. Shell is building a petrochemical plant in Beaver County to use the ethane generated at wells. But at what cost?
Turns out, fracked wells are most productive in the first five years of operation. (There are already 100 wells in Washington County that are either plugged or inactive.) Some unlucky landowners are now paying the cost of producing gas that their royalties won’t cover. We already have miles of gas pipelines built, with more planned.
Also, the disposal of fracking waste water has changed the chemistry of our rivers and has had municipal drinking water authorities dealing with high levels of bromide and trihalomethanes. Although that’s now prohibited, the Allegheny River still has elevated bromide and radium levels.
Injection wells are being permitted in Allegheny and Indiana counties and landfills are being inundated with drilling waste. There’s also groundwater contamination and dealing with well construction and traffic. Between 2004 and 2016 there were 9,442 complaints filed with the state Department of Environmental Protection — more than 4,100 of those are related to water issues, according to nonprofit investigative-journalism outlet Public Herald.
Granted, natural gas burns much cleaner than coal, but fracking generates enough fugitive methane and other toxic emissions to offset the health benefits. So, when you add in all of the aforementioned problems and issues, can you really say that natural gas is really all that clean?
But don’t fret. There is an alternative that’s sustainable, carbon neutral, and actually generates revenue — biogas.
If there is one thing people can produce, it’s waste. And waste can be converted into renewable natural gas (RNG) through biodigestion. Though not a new idea, biodigestion is the process when organic matter is decomposed by bacteria. It can convert any compostable biomass into methane for energy with high efficiency. The only byproducts to biodigestion are clean water and carbon-neutral fertilizer. But could this produce as much as we obtain through drilling? Given the amount of compostable waste the U.S. produces annually, yes.
Cow and pig waste alone could produce more than 8 trillion cubic feet of RNG. Quasar Energy Group in Cleveland has built RNG-producing, multi-megawatt power plants for farms, food companies, and municipal wastewater facilities. In Hermitage, Pa., installing biodigesters as part of their municipal waste facility upgrade saves the town $25,000 in monthly energy costs. Imagine how much natural gas and electricity ALCOSAN could produce from its 44,000 dry tons of sludge!
So, on this Earth Day, as construction continues on the ethane cracker plant and new gas wells are being installed, remember that there’s an option out there for a truly sustainable source of natural gas and energy. It would be a waste not to give it a try.
John Stolz is the director of the Center for Environmental Research and Education at Duquesne University.