Natural Gas is Not Cleaner Than Oil and Coal; It’s Less Dirty

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As many of you may know, the city of Denton, Texas has just won a battle against the shale gas industry banning the use of hydraulic fracturing within the corporate city limits.  I was present last Tuesday along with many other supporters of the ban, including former Dish, Tex. mayor Calvin Tillman, at the Denton City Council meeting that officially entered the ban proposal into the record.  Upon reading the council’s vote on file # ID 14-0756, the crowd exploded in applause and cheers.  But the fight as we all know has just begun.


City of Denton council votes to ban fracking in their city


To date two lawsuits have been filed against the city to challenge Denton citizens’ right to impose such a ban.

The Texas Oil and Gas Association filed for an injunction in state court in Denton Wednesday morning to stop the ban from being implemented. And the Texas General Land Office, which controls oil and gas leases that fund public education, has sued the town too, calling the ban, “arbitrary, capricious and unreasonable.”   SOURCE

At the head of the fight for ban supporters is the Denton Drilling Awareness Group (DAG), the same people who were behind the initiative to get the new ordinance to ban fracking in the city on the ballot this last election.   According to their Facebook page DAG is “very close to retaining national and local attorneys who are familiar with and successful in working on these type of cases.”

Part of the battle will be to win over the hearts and minds of people, not just in Denton but around the country and perhaps even around the world to put pressure on both the ban supporters and ban opponents. It will naturally revolve around a war on words.  One of the words that fracking supporters will be using is the word clean or its superlative, cleaner.  It’s an effort by ban opponents to convince people how clean natural gas is than the other dirtier sources of energy, oil and coal.

The “clean energy” concept underlies the message of the shale gas industry’s use of fracking that touts a cheaper source of energy that consumers are experiencing at the gas pump.  For most people who pay little attention to the details of what is involved in our use of fossil fuels, which natural gas is part of, this clean and cheap meme can attract followers where growing concern about the effects of climate change from man-made global warming are raising concerns.

The pro-fracking crowd will use the words of the EPA to support their “cleaner” energy concept:

At the power plant, the burning of natural gas produces nitrogen oxides and carbon dioxide, but in lower quantities than burning coal or oil.  Methane, a primary component of natural gas and a greenhouse gas, can also be emitted into the air when natural gas is not burned completely. Similarly, methane can be emitted as the result of leaks and losses during transportation. The United States EPA

But note that this refers to natural gas burned “at the power plant”, not what transpires as we drill for this natural gas thousands of feet below the earth’s surface.  At natural gas well sites, methane burn-offs pose serious problems.


Not Really the Best Choice We have

Essentially saying “we are not as bad as the other guys” is hardly a stable plan for our energy future.  To say natural gas is cleaner than oil and coal misleads the public into believing that the threats to human health and the environment are significantly diminished.  In our battle to reduce green house gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere the use of natural gas does have a reduction effect on the CO2 output but other toxic emissions like methane not only undercut this benefit while volatile organic compounds foul the air we breathe and the water we drink.

The method of fracking requires millions of gallons of precious water that in drought-stricken Texas is becoming harder and harder to come by.  Add to this the air pollution derived from all the ancillary traffic required to sustain a gas well along with the threat of earthquakes and the notion of “clean” energy loses its effectiveness.


Dirty and Dirtier. Clean isn’t the first thought that comes to mind from these pictures

Being cleaner than something infers that the alternative is at least clean by most given standards. A child that comes in the house with mud up to his ankles is not clean compared to the kid who has no mud on them.  They are however less dirtier than another child who has mud up to his knees or a third child who is completely covered in mud. One may be less dirtier than the other but clean they are not.

Naturally if we have to choose between natural gas, coal and oil it only makes sense to choose the one that poses less risks than the other two but there ARE other options where clean is actually an appropriate term for energy sources like solar, wind and geo-thermal. Not only are they clean but they are infinite and beyond many of the cost controls of large corporations.

Those who would hype the “cleaner than …” label are the snake oil salesmen of our time. Natural gas may serve as a cheaper and less dirtier alternative to coal and oil but only until we can can convert to clean alternative fuels. Our children and their children should not have to suffer the consequences of our failure to change directions on energy usage because we listened to snake oil salespeople rather than the science.



17 responses to “Natural Gas is Not Cleaner Than Oil and Coal; It’s Less Dirty

  1. I live in Irving. I have friends that live in Denton and had my son there in 2010. I’ve been lurking here for a while. Thank you for being reasonable and making this interesting. It seems like most people are on one side or the other based on one or two thirty-second news stories. I really appreciated this post, you’ve nailed it on the head. ‘Less Dirty’ is not good enough.

  2. Was watching Bill Nye on, of all things, Bloomberg this morning, and his message to the round-table was simple:”Get off fossil fuels altogether.” It is the message we must be pushing, but then you have idiots like Australia’s new (climate change denying) PM who champions more coal!

    Editorial note: I think you meant gas, not glass in, “To say natural glass is cleaner than oil and coal misleads…”

    • “I think you meant gas, not glass”

      Thanks John. I threw this whole thing together about 3am this morning from previous notes. I checked and rechecked my writing and after finding a dozen or two errors you would have thought I found them all. Not the first time I have had to come back though after publishing to correct spelling errors and change the language around a bit to fit the context better.

  3. That’s interesting. There was a piece on the news last night about a chemicals company investing a heap of money in shale gas exploration, in Scotland. Here’s the link: The TV crew interviewed people in Grangemouth, and the general opinion seemed to be that no one was very fond of fracking, but everyone acknowledged the economic benefits of the action. Hard to argue the point with someone who needs a job, when you’ve got nothing else to offer.

  4. This referendum thing (when done honestly) is one of the few things about American politics this Canuckistan resident is jealous of. Congrats on an ultra-rare (albeit mostly symbolic) victory!

    I’d love to know, when ALL is added up, how the fuel sources rank in “cleanliness” per unit of energy produced. Gas fairs OK at the power plant, but a hell of a lot more depends on extraction methods and transport. Most fuels are like that. Just compare the classic Beverly Hillbillies oil strike to the oil from the Alberta Tar Sands. Jed Clampett shoots at a rabbit, misses and the crude bubbles up like crazy. In Alberta, they’ve got to strip-mine the shit, boil that cabbage down and then overcome the difficulties of transporting the extra-gooey stuff. I’ve heard estimates that it takes about 1/4 of a barrel of oil to generate 1 barrel of Tarsands oil. That’s some serious fuel inefficiency.

    Likewise coal. Some coal is still mined fairly “unobtrusively”. But the idea that removing Appellation mountaintops to get coal is somehow worth it, even just financially, is a hard one to swallow. Never mind the frequent potentially fatal chemical runoffs. You’d think blowing up and moving a mountain must come pretty close to net loss of energy. Do they even salvage the wood?

    I’d also like to see how wind & solar, etc stack up. They’re undoubtedly far cleaner, but I often wonder how clean/energy intensive the production of their equipment is. Energy production is a messy business. We need to start using less, not producing more. (Uh-oh, is that a drone I hear?)

    That’s why, if I were in the fossil fuel business, I wouldn’t take any city’s anti-fracking bylaw to court. It just dredges up all your dirty little secrets and gets people to start asking questions. And for what? How much actual fracking goes on in these cities? Certainly not enough to risk turning public opinion against you. Just imagine the cost-benefit analysis of attacking a New York City fracking ban.

    Sometimes, you need to be humble. (Like I’m one to talk.) But I guess they’re just that greedy and/or confident in their ownership of the decision making process.

    • “How much actual fracking goes on in these cities? Certainly not enough to risk turning public opinion against you.”

      You have answered the $64 thousand question SM. Yet greed knows no limits and with wells drying up in about 3 years they have to keep drilling anywhere and everywhere to make those dividend payments to shareholders and the royalty fees promised mineral property owners

      • Good. So when can I expect the $64,000 cheque? I could use one about now.

        I saw Gasland2: Electric Frackaloo and some other documentaries, so I know there’s a surprising amount of fracking going on in towns and a lot of fracking related infrastructure/storage in cities. Lots of toxic belching & whatnot going on in places where it shouldn’t.

        But still, these dopes are really risking choking the chicken golden goose of unlimited, unquestioning, public demand for their product by pissing people off, or allowing negative information about their activity to be published, while chasing what may amount to be mere days worth of product. Dumb on so many levels.

        Then again, for over a decade GM knew about a defective 50cent piece of equipment was killing customers they spent billions marketing to. Yet they did nothing about it. So this kind of corporate “genius” isn’t just limited to the oil business.

        At what point does capitalism turn into a “suicide machine”? Because I think we’ve pretty much surpassed it.

      • “At what point does capitalism turn into a “suicide machine”? “

        They’re on a streak that is going unchecked. It could well be their “I’m invincible” attitude that could cut them off at the knees. But then American voters are not the brightest lot and as long as the GOP can continue to create straw men that scare them easily, the race to the bottom may continue unabated.

        BTW, we only write checks down here. No cheques. 😉

      • A “cheque” is something you give to someone as a reward for services rendered. A “check” is something you give an opposing hockey player as a punishment. The former is the one you want to receive, the latter is the one you want to give.

        If you were a hockey playing nation, you’d write “cheques” too. I’m sure an old guy like you, with brittle bones & whatnot, would appreciate knowing in advance which one was headed his way. 🙂

        And go Mean Green!!! Or is that “Meaner & Greener” now that fracking is banned from Denton? I watched them lose all season on TV this year, but big marks for a wind/solar powered stadium.

      • “A “cheque” is something you give to someone as a reward for services rendered”

        So the Canucks say “fuque you”? 🙂

        “I watched them lose all season on TV this year, but big marks for a wind/solar powered stadium.”

        Yeh, a stadium no one really thought we needed except the University administration. 😦

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