WASHINGTON — Industry proposals that could turn the United States into a major natural gas exporter have raised concerns about an eventual fracking surge that could accelerate global warming and contaminate groundwater while undermining the economy by raising the cost of electricity from gas-fired power plants.
America could start exporting liquefied natural gas to countries overseas as soon as 2016. But those initial shipments will seem like a trickle if all the proposals for export terminals are eventually licensed.
Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, is the process of fracturing shale formations — thereby releasing methane and other hydrocarbons encased by rock — with injections of water and chemicals at depths as great as 20,000 feet. Most of the fracking is occurring in a handful of states: Colorado, the Dakotas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas.
Fracking threats to water and climate
Energy developers claim that groundwater, which is much closer to the surface than the shale, is not threatened by chemicals used in fracking, but environmentalists argue that there is scientifically documented evidence to the contrary.
Moreover, as the Environmental Protection Agency points out, “natural gas and petroleum systems”account for 29 percent of all methane emissions, whose impacts on climate change are 20 times greater than those of carbon dioxide.
Concerns about the possibility of a huge fracking increase were rekindled on Aug. 15, when the Department of Energy announced a procedural change in its reviews of license applications to export LNG. The change is intended to streamline the application process somewhat, and it may be a signal that the DOE might be gearing up to pick up the pace of licensing decisions.
Under the change, applicants will be shifted to the front of the licensing queue as soon as they receive their draft Environmental Impact Statement from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the agency that reviews engineering plans and issues construction permits for pipelines and terminals, among other energy facilities.
Environmental groups argue that the DOE — which reviews each EIS as part of its decision-making process for licensing requests — improperly ignored upstream impacts in the EIS issued for the Cheniere Energy proposal to convert its Sabine Pass (Louisiana) import terminal into a “bi-directional” terminal.
Sierra Club sees EIS analysis as inadequate
The EIS issued by the FERC for the Sabine Pass project was limited to the terminal site itself, leaving out any evaluation of potential impacts to the towns where fracking produces the methane that Cheniere Energy will liquefy for export.
The Sierra Club argues that the National Environmental Policy Act requires an evaluation of alternative project proposals to ease environmental impacts, while the DOE contends that it’s impossible to identify the communities whose fracking fields will supply the gas that’s sent to an export terminal.
Deb Nardone, who heads the Sierra Club’s Beyond Natural Gas Campaign, told MintPress News that the Sierra Club intends to contest this argument whenever the DOE grants the next unconditional export license.
“You can’t evaluate alternatives, as NEPA requires, if you haven’t assessed the upstream impacts in the first place,” Nardone said.
The DOE has so far issued conditional export licenses (those which still need a final EIS) to 30 companies proposing to ship LNG to countries which have signed free trade agreements with the U.S.; another seven licenses have been issued conditionally for shipments to non-FTA countries, which include such energy-ravenous nations as China, Japan, India, and all of the Western European countries.
According to a DOE chart which lists all of the license applications (as of Aug. 28) for shipments to FTA and non-FTA countries, the volume of proposed LNG shipments would be the dry-gas equivalent of 78.58 billion cubic feet per day — more than the daily gas consumption predicted for the entire country in 2014 by the U.S. Energy Information Administration.