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US seeks independence with natural gas

Gas platform in Pennsylvania
For many, the environmental costs are outweighed by the economic benefits

By Matthew Price
BBC News, Pennsylvania

The hawk flies just above the car as it rounds the corner. It glides through the trees, and comes to rest on a branch.

Around the next corner, the road opens out into a fold between the hills. An old farmhouse and barn sits up slightly to the left.

This is rural Pennsylvania - lush, green, and refreshingly cooler than the humid east coast at this time of year.

And hidden underneath all this beauty, a natural resource that could answer the US's energy prayers.

Around another small hill, and along a gravel track, sits a gas platform. It is drilling down into what is the largest natural gas field to be discovered in the US.

'Energy independence'

The company drilling here is Range Resources, and according to its vice-president, Stephen Rupert, natural gas could help break this country's dependence on foreign oil.

"Natural gas is our cleanest fossil fuel. It can be used in cars, to generate electricity. It can be liquefied and used as jet aviation fuel," he says.

Then comes the killer comment, as far as US politics is concerned right now: "The natural gas that's being used in this country at this time can really get us to energy independence."

"Energy independence" has almost become the Holy Grail in the US.

Here, the environmental debate often does not concern saving the planet, or reducing the effects of human action on the global climate.

Software program
Scientists argue the processes they use to extract the gas could be cleaner

Instead it is couched in terms of how the US can get its energy from sources other than Middle Eastern countries, from whom it currently buys the majority of its oil.

There are still those here who doubt the science and deny that human actions are causing climate change.

It is easier to sell the idea that changing where the US gets it fuel from will make the country less reliant on potentially difficult regimes.

For a while that argument helped encourage environmentalists that this country was entering a new phase, in which it would generate clean, green energy.

Now, some of them fear natural gas discoveries may be delivering (inexpensive) energy independence, without delivering a sustainable solution to the country's energy needs.

'Short term'

In the laboratories of Pittsburgh University, Laura Schaefer is huddled with a student next to a computer screen. A software program mimics river water flows in bright reds and oranges and yellows.

Laura Schaefer
[Natural gas] is a good bridge technology, but it's not the be-all-and-end-all of energy generation
Laura Schaefer
University of Pittsburgh

Here, they are trying to develop alternative sources of energy.

Natural gas may be cleaner than oil - it produces around half the greenhouse gasses for the same amount of energy - but Ms Schaefer does not believe it is the answer the US needs.

"We have to stop looking at the short term. Sure we can find enough fuel for the next two years, five years, 10 years, but what happens at that point when we haven't built up our renewable or alternative energy technologies?" she asks.

And Ms Schaefer fears the focus on new natural gas discoveries could diminish funding for those seeking new alternative energy sources.

"I do. [Natural gas] is a good bridge technology, but it's not the be-all-and-end-all of energy generation," she says.

'Green revolution'

Earlier this year, President Barack Obama proclaimed that the US could "become the world's leading exporter of renewable energy".

We've had problems with water, we've had air quality issues, there's an odour which has made us sick
Stephanie Hallowich

His Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, is a highly respected environmentalist and the Obama administration sees natural gas as a transition fuel that can help lead this country towards a new clean economy.

Many in rural Pennsylvania are also optimistic. The gas industry is leasing land from local owners - there is good money to be made. But not everyone is happy.

Stephanie Hallowich and her family are surrounded by natural gas wells.

"We've had problems with water, we've had air quality issues, there's an odour which has made us sick," she says.

"We have two children. We have huge issues about their health."

Traffic jam in US
Natural gas is seen here as a realistic alternative source of fuel for cars

She is by no means the only one. Several families living close to gas extraction areas across the country have reported problems, and a number of court cases are progressing.

The gas companies insist they are not harming the environment. Scientists argue the processes they use to extract the gas could be cleaned up.

For many though, any environmental costs are outweighed by the economic benefits. Natural gas is seen here as a realistic alternative source of fuel - to be used in cars, in homes, to power industry and business.

Americans use more energy than anyone else on the planet. Natural gas is cheap, and available.

It is not the "green revolution" some, including President Obama once spoke of. But it may be how, in the short term at least, the US chooses to meet its energy needs.



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