You may have caught the announcement that Gov. Tom Corbett was on hand to open Philadelphia’s first public compressed natural gas (CNG) filling station recently. VNG – a Bala Cynwyd-based start-up devoted to “building the national infrastructure to fuel America’s natural gas vehicles” – installed the pump at a high volume BP gas station just off Montgomery Blvd. It seems you can grab a Dunkin’ Donut and some beef jerky at the convenient store while you’re trying to figure out how to get yourself one of those hard-to-come-by CNG powered cars.
But all snark aside, there is an argument to be made for building out an alternative fuel infrastructure even if demand is not currently high. The fact is – and this is true for all “alternatively” fueled vehicles – that if the infrastructure does not exist, no one in their right mind will build vehicles using anything other than gasoline or diesel. And if they were built, only the most devoted environmentalist would completely alter their daily routines to go out of their way to fill up at one of the few alternative fueling stations within a 50 mile radius. No. If you want to shift to alternative, cleaner fuels, you need to invest in building out the infrastructure to support the use of cleaner fuels.
And that was pretty much what Corbett said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
“Pennsylvania has the second-largest energy field in the world, and cities from Pittsburgh to Williamsport to Towanda to Philadelphia are benefiting from our game-changing energy resources,” Gov. Corbett said. “The convenience of a local CNG fueling station makes it possible for local governments, organizations, companies and residents to make the switch to this cleaner and affordable alternative fuel. By harnessing natural gas, we are reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving air quality and putting Pennsylvania at the forefront of American energy independence.”
Now, look. It get it. It’s an election season and this guy is behind Tom Wolf by double-digits in every poll. He’s desperate. Corbett has never been a friend of the environment – he’s gutted the Department of Environmental Protection, attempted to strip local municipalities of the ability to regulate pollutants in their neighborhoods, and he his campaign coffers are overflowing with campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry. But, regardless of Corbett’s desperation and political opportunism, the VNG operated CNG fueling station was made possible by a significant investment of public funds to build out an alternative fueling infrastructure. According to the governor’s own press release,
The VNG public fueling station was constructed in-part with a $253,752 Alternative and Clean Energy (ACE) grant and $169,150 ACE loan from Commonwealth Financing Authority (CFA) which is administered by the Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED). VNG provided matching funds of more than $422,000. The CFA approved the funding at its public board meeting on September 17, 2013.
The ACE Program provides financial assistance in the form of grants and loan funds that will be used by eligible applicants for the usage, development and construction of alternative and clean energy projects in the state, including CNG and Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) filling stations.
So, this is good, right? Yeah, cleaner air! Here’s to one more punch in the gut to climate change!
Not so fast.
Building out the CNG infrastructure depends upon all of us buying into two related and often repeated communication strategies from the natural gas industry and its allied politicians:
- That natural gas is a much cleaner fossil fuel; it is a “bridge fuel” on our way to a green future.
- That we should measure how clean a fuel is by looking at the emissions coming out of the tailpipes of our cars.
The first claim depends upon ignoring the production process necessary to extract natural gas. The second claim diverts our attention to our consumer-based identities, focused squarely upon market-solutions to climate change.
Natural gas is only cleaner if we completely abstract it from how we get it. Before the current fracking boom, companies drilled for natural gas like they drill for oil: stick a needle in the ground and hope for a gusher. However, as we know all too well in Pennsylvania and the other shale gas-producing states, that’s not how we get natural gas where we live. Now we frack the shale by pumping millions of gallons of water and scores of undisclosed chemicals into the ground to break up the shale to release trapped natural gas bubbles. Yes, a lot of gas is coming out. But it’s a carbon-intensive process and one that virtually negates the fact that natural gas is “cleaner burning.”
For example. researchers at Cornell University have been arguing for several years that the methane released into the atmosphere from fracking is accelerating climate change a much faster rate than traditional carbon pollution. Speaking to Bloomberg News this past May, Cornell researchers Robert Howarth and Anthony Ingraffea, criticized the Obama Administration and the EPA for their natural gas boosterism:
Professors Robert Howarth and Anthony Ingraffea told reporters the administration has overestimated the climate benefits of increased reliance on natural gas compared to other fossil fuels such as coal. As a result, the White House’s recent strategy to address methane won’t provide the emissions reductions necessary to address the impacts of climate change, they said.
The EPA estimates methane is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 100-year period when it calculates the pollutant’s effect on climate. However, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has increased its estimate of methane’s potency in every report since 1996, and it now estimates methane to be 34 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
“The global warming potential of methane is much higher than we thought it was, and the actual emission rates were much higher than we thought they were,” Ingraffea said.
Howarth and Ingraffea’s original report in 2011, warned of the significant dangers posed by increasing methane emissions. The most startling finding of their research was that
when viewed on the 20-year time horizon after emission, the greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas is considerably greater than that for coal or diesel oil, when the full effects of the methane emissions are considered.
And, in the interest of adding insult to injury, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, it turns out that:
CH4 (methane) is more efficient at trapping radiation than CO2 (carbon dioxide). Pound for pound, the comparative impact of CH4 on climate change is over 20 times greater than CO2 over a 100-year period.
You got that? It’s not just a matter of how much methane leaks from fracking and the distribution of natural gas; methane is far worse for the environment than good old CO2.
The second strategy, seeks to keep our attention focused on how we experience natural gas as consumers. That is, the industry wants us to pay attention to our tailpipes, our wallets, and the “clean burn” of the blue flame. For example, a Southern California Gas Company lays out its sure-to-please, focus-group-tested marketing phrases in a 3 minute commercial from a couple of years ago. Their message is a familiar one. Choose natural gas
- to lower bills
- to meet demand
- to reduce emissions
- to achieve efficiency
One of my personal favorites, though, is a commercial from “America’s Natural Gas Alliance” (ANGA) – a natural gas industry trade group – about natural gas buses in Los Angeles. Titled “LA Transit – Think About It,” the commercial is designed as an emotional feast for liberal viewers – especially urban liberals who are closely tied to Democratic Party elite and whose activism tends to be limited to greener consumer choices. The commercial is narrated by a young woman who has been in LA for 35 years and who is now raising her two children there. She is a bus rider who is happy that LA is a cleaner city now that the buses run on natural gas. It’s a good commercial. Really. But one that is still limited to dabbling around the edges of climate change and one that asks viewers to think about the air they breathe in their specific neighborhood, forgetting the emissions from the entire production process.
On the one hand, Tom Corbett’s sudden conversion to environmentalism is what it is: a cynical and desperate political move to appear to give half a shit about the environment. However, there is another purpose that is much more far-reaching: Corbett is helping tie Pennsylvania’s immediate future more intimately to the fracking industry. If PA is going to invest public funds to build Compressed Natural Gas stations, then those stations will need a constant supply of natural gas. And, as we have seen over the past several years, Corbett and PA Republicans have already given away billions of dollars in tax-breaks and other incentives to the fracking industry. We’ve already been set up; now, we’re being asked to joyfully consent to a deepening of the climate crisis.
I am not even willing to say that Corbett’s appearance at the CNG filling station was a desperate political move. No, it was standard operating procedure for a man who has given away the store to the natural gas industry and privateers. How so, you ask? Just step back for a minute and look at stage Corbett walked onto for that PR event. The CNG filling station was built and will be maintained by VNG – a company devoted to expanding the natural gas infrastructure. Corbett handed over our money to VNG to build that station. VNG installed its pump at a BP station – BP, the company responsible for the worst oil spill disaster in U.S. history just a few short years ago. One of the Department of Environmental Protection’s “partners” in the new CNG filling station was Aqua America – the company responsible for privatizing much of PA’s water supply and who “partners” with the natural gas industry by supplying millions of gallons of water to that industry for fracking. You may remember Aqua America from reporting in Raging Chicken Press as the company that tried to evict all residents from the Riverdale Mobile Home park in Jersey Shore, PA so it could more efficiently suck truckloads of water out of the Susquehanna.
No, the CNG filling station is not about donning a green cloak to try to win a few votes in this election cycle. It’s about deepening Pennsylvania dependence upon a few billion dollar mega corporations. Welcome back to the company town.