Debunking the fracked gas fairy tale

Fuel is as dirty as coal and extremely dangerous

IN APRIL, Tom Andrews wrote an opinion piece that appeared in CommonWealth calling for more fracked gas energy, claiming it “plays a critical role when it comes to cost and emissions reductions” and that energy demand is “skyrocketing.”

He is wrong on all counts. We’ll start with energy demand. ISO – New England, the organization responsible for regional energy reliability, predicts that New England’s energy demand will be flat, or lower, between now and 2030.  When it comes to gas, the Massachusetts Joint Statewide Electric and Gas Three-Year Energy Efficiency Plan, which Andrews called “a serious, data-driven review of our energy challenges and opportunities,” predicts that gas demand will fall over the next few years.

Next, he claims that “gas is cleaner than coal or oil.” If only that were so. For years, even environmentalists recommended moving to gas as a transition toward renewable energy – a so-called “bridge fuel” – but current research has found that when we look beyond burning gas, and take into account the impacts from gas that leaks from fracking wells and distribution pipes, we find that gas contributes as much to climate change as coal and that unburned gas is 99 percent methane, which is 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in our atmosphere.

There are 15,000 gas leaks in Massachusetts, over 600 in my community of Newton alone. And to add insult to injury, National Grid charges ratepayers for gas that never makes it to our homes, but rather escapes as leaks.

Andrews’ claim about costs is also wrong.  Lazard’s latest annual “Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis” shows a continued decline in the cost of electricity from alternative energy technologies. The cost has decreased to the point that they are now at or below the marginal cost of conventional generation, including gas.  Also, renewables incorporate the social cost of carbon; if gas generators did the same, renewables would appear far less expensive than gas.

Which brings us to the most egregious omission in Andrews’ fracked-gas fable. A terrifying series of gas explosions last fall, caused by over-pressurized gas pipes in the Merrimack Valley, killed one young person, injured 21 others, caused dozens of fires, and damaged or destroyed 131 homes and business structures.  Over 8,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes and move to shelters or in with others, throwing their lives into chaos. Columbia Gas, whose maintenance crew apparently caused the damage, estimates over $1 billion in property damage.

The words “gas is dangerous” are not to be found in the Andrews opinion piece or, to be fair, in most pro-gas or pro-pipeline arguments. Yet, over the past two decades, over 12,000 natural gas and hazardous material incidents have occurred in the United States, killing 312 people, injuring 1,308, and causing over $8 billion in property damage.  The pace of damage is accelerating: in 2017 there were 647 incidents, killing 19 and injuring 34.  And that doesn’t count near misses. Just ask any fire chief in Massachusetts how often, in his or her town, 100-pound manhole covers fly like frisbees from gas explosions underground.

How should we interpret this omission?  That these harms should be overlooked in an argument about the role of gas in the future?  That fatalities, injuries, and massive disruptions are necessary costs of doing business and part of the price we pay for power?  We have yet to hear anyone from the energy industry explain this calculus – because there is no explanation, or justification.

Public safety is one of the biggest reasons to get away from gas, as soon as possible. With 1,600 megawatts of wind and 800 megawatts of solar power coming online in Massachusetts, and our record-setting performance on energy efficiency, we don’t need gas – either as a bridge to renewables, or as  part of our energy future.

Gas is a fossil fuel: dirty and dangerous.

Meet the Author

Emily Norton

Ward 2 city councilor, Newton
Clean, safe, renewable energy is here now, and it is the way to go for the future. It’s also far cheaper than gas, if you count the costs of gas to the environment and to public safety.  Although fracked gas may continue to play a role in our regional energy system, it should be for the shortest time possible. Any further expansion of its role would slow our acceleration away from all fossil fuels, and we simply cannot afford to delay.

Emily North is the Newton Ward 2 city councilor.