Natural Gas vs. Coal: Are They Both Bad for Coloradans?

April 13 2011, 7:17 AM

With Japan updating the accident level of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant to a 7 on the international scale—similar to Chernobyl in "widespread health and environmental effects"—an increasingly skeptical American public and serious funding constraints have left the United States' "nuclear renaissance" in limbo. Much of the discussion about energy has turned to escalating natural gas production, with proponents touting its "cleanliness." In fact, natural gas—when burned—has proven much cleaner than coal in terms of carbon output. But its extraction process (New York Times Interactive), commonly known as "fracking," has been at the center of a debate over its impacts on drinking water in Colorado and elsewhere. And a new report is adding fuel to the natural gas fire.

Researchers at Cornell University have found fracking's methane emissions to be so pollutive they negate natural gas' "carbon advantage" and rival coal emissions when it comes to climate impact (The Hill). The oil-and-gas industry is refuting the report and will likely have even more to say in the coming days, although its been plenty busy mitigating criticisms over the water charges. The industry has a new website that allows gas operators to volunteer information about the chemicals they use for the process (11News): Fracfocus.org offers searchable information on regulations and wells by state, and the latter database contains five pages of PDF information for Colorado.

In further defense of the industry, on Tuesday an official with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission assured Congress that fracking has never leaked harmful chemicals into the state's drinking water, as residents near the drilled areas have charged (Durango Herald). Still, stories of flammable tap water and other environmental dangers have some residents and ranchers in Elbert County concerned, as three major companies take steps to drill the Niobrara shale formation stretching across the northeast part of the Front Range (Denver Post). At the same time, county officials and others are embracing the likely economic windfall from the projects.