July 14, 2010 | General

Editorial: Ironies And Opportunities

BioCycle July 2010, Vol. 51, No. 7, p. 4
Nora Goldstein

This June 21, I joined what I hope were millions of people to watch a documentary film, “Gasland,” on HBO. As a resident of northeastern Pennsylvania, I’ve been reading a lot in the local newspaper about the Marcellus Shale, an untapped (and not easily accessible) source of natural gas that runs through several states, including ours. The articles discussed the drilling practice of hydraulic fracturing, which involves injecting fluids into the earth at high pressure. There have been numerous reports of significant water pollution from this practice.
What I didn’t know until I watched “Gasland” is the extent of that pollution and the related documented illnesses reported by residents (many of whom sold drilling rights to the gas companies) that have resulted from “fracking.” Filmmaker Josh Fox lives along the Marcellus Shale and had been approached by a gas company to lease his land for drilling. The process of researching the pros and cons of this offer led to the production of “Gasland” (http://gaslandthemovie.com).
The documentary pointed out that the 2005 Energy Bill exempts oil and gas companies from Safe Drinking Water Act requirements when they do hydraulic fracturing. These fluids include known carcinogens. The film also discussed how natural gas production is a significant point source of ozone-forming emissions (nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds), greenhouse gases and other air toxins. In one western state, a rural area with natural gas processing facilities has dangerously high ozone levels typically seen only in a highly urbanized setting. I got the sense that, at least is this state, these emissions were happening with little regulatory oversight.
So here is the irony: Farm digester projects have come to a screeching halt in California because of very restrictive NOx emission requirements on stationary gas engines. Stringent state water quality rules also make permitting digesters difficult. Yet anaerobic digestion of organic waste streams is a reliable source of renewable energy, and it addresses water quality problems generated by livestock manure. Fortunately, not all states have such onerous regulations, e.g., Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and New York, where the opportunities for anaerobic digestion are being tapped.
This month’s cover story, “Oil And Compost Could Prove A Good Mix In The Gulf” (page 20) and Sally Brown’s Climate Change Connections column, “Bioremediate Petroleum (BP)” (page 60), both highlight another tremendous opportunity – not for generating renewable energy, but to clean up the messes left behind by precarious and invasive oil extraction deep beneath the sea. Use of compost, and the microbes put to work by the composting process, has been proven to remediate hydrocarbon contamination. Research by Dr. Harry Allen of the USEPA, featured in our cover story, suggests an opportunity to use compost to capture and begin to break down the oil in water, and then to collect the material and finish the remediation via composting on land.
Some parting food for thought: A recent article in the New York Times, “5 Ways Congress Can Bolster Growth” (7/6/10), outlines a handful of “relatively cheap” ways to stimulate economic recovery. Among them is to provide clarity about regulations. The example provided is the energy bill that’s dragging its feet through Congress. “A good bill would include a cap on power plant emissions, making clear how much more expensive those emissions would become,” wrote columnist David Leonhardt. He includes a comment from Jim Rogers, chairman, president and CEO of Duke Energy, a major supplier of electricity (much generated by coal and natural gas) in the U.S. Such a bill, suggested Rogers, wouldn’t only help the climate, it would be a form of stimulus, too. Now there is a bit of irony (coming from an energy company currently reliant on fossil fuels) but also a huge window of opportunity!

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