Academic journal article McGill Journal of Sustainable Development Law

Natural Gas Development: Extracting Externalities - towards Precaution-Based Decision-Making

Academic journal article McGill Journal of Sustainable Development Law

Natural Gas Development: Extracting Externalities - towards Precaution-Based Decision-Making

Article excerpt

3.4 Migration of Contaminants (156)

Natural gas development and waste disposal techniques have also negatively impacted agricultural and livestock farms. In New York State, a March 2011 gathering of "farmers, landowners, attorneys," and other concerned citizens drew a crowd of more than 400 people, and heard first-hand testimony regarding the industry's effects on farmland and livestock. (157) Testimonies described livestock deaths, birth defects, reproduction issues, and contamination of organic agricultural crops as a result of extraction and production activities. (158) The practice of ground surface disposal of natural gas wastes, called "landfarming," has also caused concern among landowners and farmers. (159) Landfarming, as described by the EPA, "involves spreading excavated contaminated soils in a thin layer on the ground surface and stimulating aerobic microbial activity within soils through aeration and/or the addition of minerals, nutrients, and moisture." (160) In the rural region of Hill County, Texas, neighboring residents to landfarms complained of burning skin and eyes, contamination of livestock feed, and land contaminant migration. (161) Two agricultural farmers voiced concerns regarding the diminished value of their land, as contaminated farmlands no longer yield viable crops. (162)

The aforementioned documents, reports, and testimonies present startling, but predictable revelations. According to the 2010 EPA report concerning national enforcement and compliance strategy, the EPA has already received and investigated several complaints related to coal bed methane operations throughout Region 8, a geographical area encompassing six states in the western US. (163) The complaints described various instances of chemical migration into underground sources of drinking water and improper treatment and disposal of produced waters. (164) The report attributed increased air pollution in Region 8 to the rapid development of natural gas throughout the area, stating "Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah have seen ozone levels that exceed nation[al] ambient air quality standards with levels increasing at several sites."165

3.5 Climate Change

Of notable significance, the EPA report makes mention of the correlation between natural gas production and increased emissions of organic compounds, such as methane, "a potent greenhouse gas" and significant contributor to climate change. (166) The association between natural gas and climate change has only recently begun to surface in mainstream media, although development of the resource has long been associated with significant emissions of methane. (167) Largely considered a clean energy source, the burning of natural gas emits far fewer harmful emissions than other conventional fuel sources; (168) thus, in terms of global warming, natural gas has often been viewed as a superior resource. However, the same may not be true of natural gas development activities, from hydraulic fracturing of shale gas in particular.

A recent study conducted by Cornell University Professor Robert Howarth and his collaborators ("Howarth study") concluded that methane emissions from certain aspects of shale gas production resulted in a larger greenhouse gas footprint than that of other fossil fuels, such as oil and coal. (169) The Howarth study considered emission factors from various points of natural gas use and development, including fugitive emissions, losses during well completion, venting and equipment leaks, losses in processing, and emissions in transport, storage, and distribution, (170) but did not consider the amount of energy required in fracking versus conventional operations. The authors estimated that 3.6 to 7.9 percent of total methane produced from shale operations was released to the atmosphere as compared to 1.7 to 6.0 percent for conventional operations. (171) The researchers also determined that over a 20-year time horizon, "the [greenhouse gas] footprint for shale gas is 22 % to 43 % greater than that for conventional gas. …

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