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March 07, 2014

Bad Reputation

The toxic industrial spills in West Virginia and North Carolina over the past weeks have delivered the first hard lesson of 2014: Never take safe drinking water for granted. And yet the natural gas industry has been asking us to do exactly that for years now.

No more. This year, the myth that natural gas is a "cleaner" fossil fuel will be dispelled for good. Natural gas drilling not only can contaminate water supplies -- it's clear that it already has. What's not so clear is why state and federal agencies that are responsible for protecting our water supply have been so slow to acknowledge and respond to that reality to the extent that fracking for gas remains exempt from parts of the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act. It's a problem that goes all the way to the top, as President Obama's insistence that natural gas should be viewed as a "bridge fuel" to a clean-energy future shows.

Late in December, the inspector general of the EPA released a report (at noon on Christmas Eve) that found the agency had been correct to issue an emergency order in 2010 after getting reports that natural gas fracking operations had caused methane contamination of water wells in Parker County, Texas. Texas fossil-fuel regulators and Range Resources (the company doing the fracking) pushed back, though, and the EPA ultimately backed down.

That was a mistake on the EPA's part, as has shown by multiple further tests that showed contamination. Results from the most recent tests, conducted last year by Robert Jackson, a professor at Duke University, are currently under peer review and will be released later this year. The professor did share the results with homeowners whose water was affected, though, who then shared them with the Associated Press (AP), which reported:

Jackson found higher levels of methane in some water wells -- sometimes five to 10 times higher -- than what Range Resources' tests showed. In some cases, the levels are five times higher than the 10 parts per million per liter set as a threshold limit by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Jackson himself told the AP: "We're seeing high methane concentrations and that result alone indicates to me that EPA closing the case was premature."

What happened to homeowners in Texas would be disturbing even if it were an isolated case, but it's not. In January, the AP reported that contamination from oil and gas wells has been reported in at least four states where fracking is booming, and that contamination has been "confirmed in a number of them, according to a review that casts doubt on industry suggestions that such problems rarely happen." In Pennsylvania alone, "more than 100 cases of pollution were confirmed over the past five years."

Across the U.S., utilities are preparing to replace old, polluting power plants that run on dirty fuels. The temptation, unfortunately, is to replace one dirty fuel (coal or oil) with another -- natural gas. We cannot afford to let that happen. Besides the obvious threat that fracking poses to our water, choosing to burn more natural gas inevitably means choosing to add more climate-polluting carbon to our atmosphere.

That's an especially poor choice because, thanks to lower costs, clean-energy alternatives have never been more competitive. When the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission recently asked a judge to evaluate competing energy proposals, he ruled that a plan based on solar arrays would be better for Minnesota's ratepayers than one based on natural gas. By "better," he didn't mean "cleaner" (although that would certainly be a bonus). He meant it would be a better deal for them financially.

If Minnesotans are better off with solar power, then why would sunny Southern California opt to replace the defunct San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station with dirty natural gas plants? Why would sunny Southwestern states or windy Midwestern states choose to shackle themselves to another fossil fuel for decades to come?

A growing movement is working to make sure that everyone knows exactly what a dirty and dangerous choice natural gas really is. But the other side of that coin is an even more important message. We have better choices -- choices that will deliver truly clean energy, that put more Americans to work, and that often will save money. Let's move beyond dirty fuels and build an economy powered by clean energy.

Let President Obama know he's got it wrong this time -- natural gas is dirty, dangerous, and anything but a clean energy solution.

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