COMMENTARY: Hot Air Beyond the Elections

COMMENTARY: Hot Air Beyond the Elections


By Al Markowitz


The news has been increasingly focused on details in the run-up to our national elections with reporting more reminiscent of sports than serious politics, especially where the Republican slug-fests are concerned. These, rather than news, make good, but worrying entertainment. Of the many vitally important news items not covered in the corporate media, one of the most consequential is the Harvard University study which, based on satellite data, found that “Methane emissions in the country rose over 30% over the 2002–2014 period, and that increase could account for 30 – 60% of the global growth of atmospheric methane seen in the past decade.”

Bobby Magill, senior science writer for Climate Central reports that, “Though the study does not attribute the increase in the U.S. to a particular source, that the rise coincided with the fracking boom.” Methane, or “natural gas,” is 84 times as potent as carbon dioxide and, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, made up about 10% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from human activities in 2013. Studies by the National Academy of Sciences have found far higher levels of methane emissions than the EPA estimates, including a 2015 study by Robert Howarth, who stated, “Methane emissions make it a disastrous idea to consider shale gas as a bridge fuel, letting society continue to use fossil fuels over the next few decades. Rather, we must move as quickly as possible away from all fossil fuels—shale gas, conventional natural gas, coal and oil – and toward a truly sustainable energy future using 21st-century technologies and wind and solar power.

Methane is certainly a cleaner fuel when burned than coal but it is not clean. Unburned in the atmosphere it poses the greatest of dangers. As the earth warms, methane trapped in thawing tundra and in deep oceans is released. There is much evidence that this release was the tipping point in the Permian extinction, also called “the great dying” 200 million years ago.

We recently witnessed one of the greatest releases of methane in modern history coming from the Aliso Canyon natural gas underground storage facility blowout in California. This leak lasted for months releasing roughly 100,000 tons of methane according to a peer-reviewed study published in the journal Science. Though we have seen methane blowouts at wells and oil rigs, this was “was 20 times larger than anything else we’d ever measured” according to study author Stephen Conley of U.C. Davis who piloted a single-engine plane rigged with methane and ethane sensors through the plume, analyzing it during 13 different research flights between Nov. 7 and Feb. 13. The Aliso Canyon disaster will definitely add to the rate and extent of planetary warming and the severity of extreme weather events.

This brings me to thinking about the plans to build natural gas pipelines though our own state. The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which includes smaller connecting lines, would move Marcellus shale natural gas attained through hydraulic fracturing, from West Virginia, though Virginia, south to power plants in North Carolina. The pipelines cut through both private property and national parks posing a significant threat to the natural, recreational and drinking water resources in the George Washington National Forest and to private property and productive rural lands in Augusta, Highland and Nelson Counties.

As Kirk Bowers of the Sierra Club writes, “People are horrified by the prospect of multiple 42-inch pipelines crossing some of the steepest and most environmentally sensitive areas in Virginia. They are fearful of the potential of property rights violations. The pipelines would cut through more than 50 miles of two national forests, traverse more than 20 high-mountain ridges in the Allegheny and Blue Ridge ranges. They would cross sensitive trout streams, wetlands and animal habitat, and pass through the complex Karst geological formations that store water for wells and springs which provide drinking water to millions.”

And, as the recent disasters demonstrate, pipelines leak and can explode. Since 1986, there have been over 7,940 incidents, 512 fatalities, 2, 359 injuries and over $6.8 billion in property damages due to pipeline explosions, including recent explosions in Appomattox and Fauquier Counties, Virginia.

More problematic is the fracking process from which this methane originates. Pipes are drilled deep into the mountains in West Virginia or into the Marcellus Shale formation which lies beneath much of the east coast, from western New York to Virginia. The process breaks up and destabilizes that bedrock by drilling into it and injecting water, sand and toxic chemicals under high pressure. This opens up fissures that help oil and natural gas flow out more freely. The result is contamination of deep aquifers and well water as well as a noted increase in earthquakes in the destabilized areas. This effect has been documented in Ohio. Youngstown, which sits on the Marcellus Shale, had not had an earthquake since measuring began back in the 18th century. In 2010 fracking began in nearby Pennsylvania resulting in 109 recorded earthquakes, the strongest, in Youngstown, registering a magnitude 3.9 on Dec. 31, 2011. The well was shut down after the quake.

Ohio is not alone in experiencing fracking related earthquakes. Studies in Arkansas, Texas and Oklahoma have also linked a spate of quakes to deep injection wells. In some areas, fracking has also led to contamination of ground and drinking water. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has confirmed 271 cases of ground water contamination due to nearby fracking wells. Nationally, the EPA, in a study released last June confirmed that fracking “could contaminate drinking water under certain conditions, such as when fluids used in the process leaked into the water table”

Even under the best of circumstances, methane fracking wells leak about 9% of the gas mined into our atmosphere adding to climate change. Beyond the issue of fracking, the beef and dairy industries are a big contributor as well, with cattle producing more methane than even the fossil fuel industry. According to a 2012 EPA report, these cattle based industries were responsible for emitting 143 and 141 million metric tons of methane while natural gas systems produced 130 and 127 million metric tons. Cows emit more methane than politicians do hot air. We need to move away not only from fossil fuels but also from a meat centered, and especially a cattle centered, culture and lifestyle.

Aside from the risks posed by fracking and by the proposed gas pipeline through Virginia, there is the question of necessity versus public safety. In the short term, we may still need a certain amount of natural gas or methane, but we could just as well produce it from biological sources, such as agricultural and animal waste or from our own sewerage. In the longer term, we need to move away from the use of methane and other climate altering fossil fuels. The technology to do that is improving at a rapid pace. The reason we have not made better progress in moving to sustainable energy is due to the powerful influence of fossil-fuel industry money on our political system.

Stopping the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and the dangerous fracking that would feed it are as important as the struggle against offshore drilling and the XL Pipeline. The coming elections could have a very real impact on our energy policies and our ability to curb fossil fuel use. This issue, and the effects of what we do about it will continue well into the future. I was heartened to read that Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam has urged federal officials to exclude Virginia from offshore drilling. Hopefully he will be our next Governor. Unlike Governor McAuliffe, Northram has no ties to the fossil fuel industry.

While it is vital to support politicians not subservient to corporate interests like Ralph Northam and Bernie Sanders, beyond the hot air of the campaign season there is much we can do as citizens to defend our common ground and protect our future. We can write or call Governor McAulliffe telling him that he needs to withdraw his support for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, the Mountain Valley Pipeline, and offshore drilling. We can also join or work with the Sierra Club. Our local chapter can be found at