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The massive California natural gas leak is just the latest and most dramatic in a series of episodes that has undermined the gas industry's "clean" image.

Fossil Fuels

California Natural Gas Leak Piles On To Gas Industry Troubles

The massive California natural gas leak is just the latest and most dramatic in a series of episodes that has undermined the gas industry’s “clean” image.

The ongoing California natural gas leak finally made big headlines this week, crowding out the latest news from Oklahoma, which has been dealing with its own natural gas issues in the form of unprecedented swarms of earthquakes. Just last Tuesday a big one hit the town of Edmund, measuring 4.3 on the Richter scale. Magnitude 4.3 isn’t exactly catastrophic but according to a federal seismologist  it reactivated a new fault, and the likely result will be a whole new series of earthquakes in populated areas.

So, how clean, really, is natural gas?

Oklahoma earthquakes USGS fracking

Natural Gas, From Clean To Cleaner

Natural gas has long been described a “clean” fuel, but that may be changing. Take a look at the language that the world’s leading natural gas producer — ExxonMobil — currently uses to describe natural gas. ExxonMobil has been doubling down on its natural gas assets, but perhaps because of the pileup of natural gas fracking episodes linked to water contamination and air pollution as well as earthquakes primarily related to fracking wastewater disposal, the company’s website does not describe natural gas broadly as “clean.”

Instead, there’s language like this:

As the world’s largest public natural gas producer, ExxonMobil brings supplies of this cleaner-burning energy source to global markets in a safe, reliable, and responsible manner.

Here it is again:

ExxonMobil’s application of advanced technology in the Piceance Basin is securing a source of clean-burning energy for the United States’ future, but in a way that is mindful of the history, land and culture of western Colorado.

The California Natural Gas Leak

The “-burning” hedge is the key. While natural gas is known to emit less carbon than other combustible fuels when burned, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the problems that can occur between the wellhead and the burn point, and the California natural gas leak provides a particularly dramatic example.

For those of you new to the issue, the California situation involves a leaking natural gas storage facility, first detected last October, by the well-to-do gated community of Porter Ranch. Thousands have been evacuated from their homes, schools are closed, and the facility’s owner predicts that it will take another two months to shut it down.

The powerful greenhouse gas methane is the main component of natural gas, so on top of the human impact there is also a significant climate impact involved, so there’s that.

The Oklahoma Earthquake Swarms

The California natural gas leak didn’t catch much national attention until the past couple of weeks, when the Environmental Defense Fund released the first aerial view of the leak as a gigantic black plume on infrared camera, and further aided by the media-friendly story of well-to-do Californians forced out of their exclusive communities.

Meanwhile, over in Oklahoma another drama has been unspooling. The state’s newly won status as the leading hotspot for earthquakes in the entire world has been linked to the injection of gas and oil fracking wastewater into disposal wells, and while there have been some attempts to rein in the practice, apparently more action is needed (earthquakes directly caused by fracking are rare, but that linkage has also been made).

Tuesday’s 4.3 earthquake in Edmunds was just one in a group of four to hit that day, but this episode is already old news. Just as predicted by the seismologists, another quake hit the area barely three days later on Friday (that’s today, as of this writing), briefly knocking out power to about 4,400 customers in an area north of Oklahoma City.

The LNG Export Angle

Damage was light, but considering the natural disasters piling on to the US midwest in recent years — including out-of-season tornadoes and floods — avoiding human-caused earthquakes will most likely become a more critical priority for state policymakers in the future.

If Oklahoma closes its doors to fracking wastewater disposal, that could bump right up against the US gas industry’s push for enabling more liquid natural gas (LNG) exports from the US.

Now that the crude oil export ban has lifted, the gas export lobbying effort is intensifying, but all bets are off if producers can’t find cheap ways to dispose of their fracking wastewater.

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Image: via US Geological Survey.

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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