Senate bill: more than $4 billion for natural gas -- what about environmental protections?

The U.S. Senate has set aside any action on comprehensive legislation to promote clean energy and address global warming. NRDC's Executive Director Peter Lehner called this predicament "an abject failure" in the middle of the hottest year on record, leaving Americans with fewer jobs and more pollution.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has stated that he is disappointed but moving ahead with narrower legislation so that the Senate accomplishes at least some goals. His legislation will increase liability caps for offshore oil spills, provide incentives for energy efficiency retrofits, authorize funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and, the topics of my post today, create incentives for vehicles that run on natural gas and require the disclosure of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing fluids.

An article in the Christian Science Monitor reports that the Senate proposal will provide more than $4 billion in incentives for natural gas vehicles.

T. Boone Pickens, author of one plan to transition trucks in our country from diesel to natural gas, estimates that such a switch would lead to natural gas replacing 2.5 million barrels of oil per day, based on the usage of 8 million 19-wheelers.

Replacing 2.5 million barrels of oil per day to run heavy-duty trucks, or approximately 900 million barrels per year, would require approximately 5.1 trillion cubic feet of natural gas per year.

How many new natural gas wells that would mean? It is hard to say for certain, because each well can produce a different amount of natural gas. We’ve calculated it will be thousands of new wells, perhaps anywhere from roughly 3,000 to 7,000 large shale gas wells. But most of the production from these large shale gas wells come in the first few years; it has been estimated that about 85 per cent of the value of shale wells in the Barnett shale will be produced in the first 10 years. Incentives for natural gas may lead to equipment and infrastructure that perpetuate the demand over the long term, requiring more and more wells to be drilled.

NRDC believes that natural gas can play an important role as we transition to a clean energy future based on maximum energy efficiency and development of renewable energy sources. But each new well comes with significant environmental threats to our air, water, land, and health, as I have blogged about extensively. It's unacceptable to promote an industry with such harmful impacts while not ensuring that appropriate, up-to-date health and safety protections accompany any incentives.

That brings us to a promising component of this Senate bill when it comes to onshore oil and gas development—requiring disclosure of hydraulic fracturing chemicals to the public.

NRDC applauds Senator Reid for acknowledging the concerns of Americans across the country who are worried about the dangerous chemicals being used in their neighborhoods, and for his support of the public's right to know the identity of these chemicals to help protect their drinking water. We greatly appreciate the work of Senators who support inclusion of disclosure provisions in this bill. Disclosure of hydraulic fracturing chemicals is an important step to get communities information they need to help protect their drinking water. Passage of the FRAC Act is the essential next step to ensure protection of drinking water sources in communities that have become sacrifice zones, and we will work to ensure that Congress passes the strongest legislation possible.

NRDC is opposed to any new natural gas development in the most sensitive places that should be off limits, such as watersheds, backyards, and wilderness quality lands. Elsewhere we support requirements for the most protective environmental techniques-- across the board, not just for hydraulic fracturing. Importantly, we think the industry has the technical and financial ability to conduct its operations in much safer and cleaner ways. Congress’s work is not done until the public is protected from all the harmful aspects of oil and gas development.