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Not Truly “Clean Energy”

January 02, 2012 By Mike Galgay, Macalester College

Today, we present our final installment in Minnesota 2020’s series of columns focusing on environmental policy issues. It’s part of our continuing collaboration with Macalester College's Environmental Studies Department and its students.

When I left home for college this fall, I expected to leave a controversial environmental issue behind. When I got to Macalester, however, I realized Minnesota, too, was in the center of a hydraulic fracturing (hydrofracking) debate.

I grew up in Westerlo, New York, which borders the region in the center of America’s natural gas extraction controversy.

New York, Pennsylvania and other northeastern states house large shale formations that exist deep below ground. They contain natural gas deposits that proponents of hydrofracking would like to tap into.



Minnesota’s Mississippi River bluffs contain the sand needed in hydrofracking. Despite the claimed economic gains from new natural gas wells, neither New York nor Minnesota needs the negative impact associated with hydrofracking.

Natural gas extraction supporters point to the fact that natural gas burns more cleanly than oil or coal, while also releasing fewer air pollutants than either as reasons for extraction. They point to it as a “bridge” to cleaner, renewable sources of energy as we distance ourselves from foreign, dirty fossil fuels.

However, to be blunt, natural gas is still a fossil fuel that contributes much more to global warming than renewable energy sources such as wind or solar power. When burned, natural gas still releases carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas and one of global warming’s top contributors. It also releases smog-causing components.

More than one percent of all natural gas leaks from well pipes and other storage facilities and transportation utilities. An IPCC (Intergovenmental Panel on Climate Change) study showed that methane, the main component in natural gas, is an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide; 25 times more efficient at trapping heat over 100 years, and 72 times more effective trapping heat over a 20 year period.

Back to hydrofracking. It involves large volumes of water mixed with sand and other chemicals, collectively known as “frac fluid.” This fluid is blasted into naturally occurring shale fractures at high pressure, to further widen these cracks, allowing natural gas to escape into a well and be pumped to the surface.

Potential problems arise when the frac fluid, now known as “flowback fluid,” is pumped back to the surface. This liquid contains a toxic mix of heavy metals, trace amounts of uranium, and other toxic chemicals which occur naturally in black shale. These materials can leech into and contaminate underground aquifers and water supplies, severely jeopardizing the health of area residents.

The recent documentary "Gasland" illustrated hydrofracking’s impact on communities and people throughout the United States. One of the most popular scenes involves a resident lighting tap water on fire.

Once flowback fluid reaches the surface, the problems don’t suddenly stop. The fluid is often stored in large open pits either on or off-site, which can cause major problems in the event of a spill or a precipitation-induced overflow. This fluid is usually highly saline and can cause extensive damage to freshwater streams, lakes, and other ecosystems.

Minnesota has valuable “frac sands” deposits in the southeastern part of the state. There is already a large mine in Ottawa, Minnesota which produces sands so perfect for the process that they have earned a nickname within the industry—“Ottawa White.”

Goodhue County and other southeastern Minnesota communities are potential mining sites. Excavation, especially in Bluff Country, could harm ecosystems and the surrounding environment. Goodhue County and other communities have already called for a moratorium on further mining until more information is available.

Ironically, both wind and natural gas are in the same supposed “clean energy” category and rising investment in natural gas exploration, which hydrofracking attracts, could seriously hamper wind power development.

Natural gas prices reached their lowest level in the last nine years last winter as a result of growing supplies. If consumers turn to natural gas, its impact could last for decades. Wind power prices have also declined, which some sources attribute to an attempt to compete with natural gas suppliers.

However, before we get caught up citing natural gas and other fossil fuels’ cheap upfront cost, let’s consider their overall price, including externalities like environment and health costs. Then, we can make a more accurate overall economic comparison to renewable energy.

Simply put, natural gas extraction is not in our long-term best interest. Hydrofracking only produces another fossil fuel, and continues our dependence.

Minnesotans have many options; pressure community leaders to impose moratoriums on frac sand mining and make clear your renewable energy preferences for the state’s future.

Minnesota’s Next Generation Energy Policy Act of 2007 was an important step, setting deadlines for reducing energy use and greenhouse gas emissions and placing limits on the building of fossil-fuel fired plants in the state. Forward looking policies such as these are key to encouraging investment in renewable energies.

State and nationwide reductions in energy use are also an option. By reducing energy demands, we reduce the leverage oil and gas companies have.

Cap and trade legislation, recently implemented in California is a key development in this area, and if executed correctly could have far-reaching implications. By creating emissions standards and taxing excess releases, it incentivizes greener technologies’ development while reducing energy demand.

All of this contributes to the ultimate goal: an end to our dependence on fossil fuels and a move to truly clean energy, which requires research and development.

For more information on what you can do, visit the 350 organization at or

Mike Galgay is a sophomore studying political science and environmental policy. He also plays catcher on Macalester’s baseball team.

Thanks for participating! Commenting on this conversation is now closed.


  • Dean says:

    January 3, 2012 at 1:10 pm

    The US is going to be dependent on fossil fuels for for at least this century - any talk to the contrary has little supporting data.  Sure the majority of fossil fuel use is going into the energy sector but great qualities are also used as a feedstock in industrial processes.  Some are vital to our survival like the production of fertilizers.  Other sectors like commercial aviation require a compact, dense energy source. While some biofuels are promising, it’s going to be a long time before their scale is large enough to move the needle. 

    It’s sad to see the rapid scaling-up of wind power without an adequate investment in environmental research on the effects of the huge installs.  There is no reason to believe that the extensive use of the huge new 100 meter diameter wind installations isn’t going to impact the environment.  The killing of birds of prey and at least as important, the bats, shouldn’t be taken lightly.  Both have serious health consequences if left unchecked.  Wind power is looking more and more like large hydro - looks good on paper but it’s got its downside too. 

    When used in moderation, renewables makes sense.  But they shouldn’t the focus of the Progressives.  That should be conservation and efficiency.  They’re the only source true source of “clean energy”. 


  • Win Curtiss says:

    January 3, 2012 at 2:46 pm

    While I appreciate Mr. Galgay’s concern for the environment, I am disappointed o onvr again that few real options or solutions are provided. EVERY energy source including water, solar, wind, biomass, etc., has pluses and minuses. Penalizing production doesn’t hurt corporations, only taxpayers and consumers/people…(and I happen to agree that corporations are not people). What would Mr. Galgay suggest we heat our homes with instead of natural gas? What would he suggest we power our cars with instead of gasoline? If everything were powered/heated/driven by electricity where would all that electricity would come from…how would that amount be generated? The answers are not always so simple as some suggest. Howerver, it also doesn’t mean that every individual consumer can’t show greater concern for the environment by being less consumptive.

  • Irv says:

    January 4, 2012 at 4:51 pm

    The difference is that when we install a wind turbine, even the large ones, we don’t permanetly destroy our environment with toxins. Fracting destroys the aquafer from which we get our fresh water. Don’t worry about heating your home, ps wood, biofuels, solar all work well, how about finding water sutable for life. In New York where they have been doing this for a while, the aquafer is so bad that when used to irrigate some upstate vineyards all of the vines died. The cattle died. Once this is in our ground, everything that consumes this water dies. Of course if you are big oil this isn’t a problem because you don’t fract in your own back yard. You pick out of the way places.

  • Dan Conner says:

    January 4, 2012 at 7:22 pm

    Another thing about “frakking.”  Earthquakes in Ohio and Oklahoma were attributed to “frakking.”  If the process can cause earthquakes, it can certainly lead to contamination of our aquifers.  Not to mention what is done with the millions of gallons of highly toxic water and chemical concoctions.

  • M L Cole says:

    January 11, 2012 at 9:47 am

    I understand “occupy wall street” and the occupy idea. However, shouldn’t we be occupying out streams, springs, lakes, and other precious natural water sources. We cannot survive without water!

  • Dan Conner says:

    January 11, 2012 at 11:04 am

    I agree with you.  However, we have to get the corruption and money in politics straightened out first.  Then we will be able to tackle environmental affairs.  Congress is too corrupt to do it now.

  • Dan Conner says:

    January 12, 2012 at 1:09 pm

    I just watched a documentary film called “Gasland.”  It raises many points that are both maddening and caused fear.  The poisoning of our water and air is discussed at leangth and how the oil and gas industry is keeping it quiet.  In addition to development of oil and gas fields being very expensive, the process is gradulaly killing us.