by Eve M.
This past May, the Rose Tree Media School District here in Media, Pennsylvania was awarded a half million dollar Natural Gas Vehicle Development grant. The grant will help to fund the district’s larger 4.8 million dollar transportation project, which includes the conversion of 14 existing diesel buses to compressed natural gas (CNG), purchase of 8 new CNG buses, and a new hybrid fueling station owned and operated by the district. The grant, overseen by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, is part of a “green” initiative that aligns with RTMSD’s commitment to environmental preservation and conservation of natural resources and energy.
As I read the article in the Media Patch about this grant award, I found myself wondering, is compressed natural gas really a green energy solution? To me it sounded like just another fossil fuel, and I need to do a little more digging.
It turns out CNG comes from domestic natural gas sources, such as the Marcellus Shale Region that covers much of Western Pennsylvania, and it is touted as a cleaner, greener, cheaper, domestic fuel alternative. A fleet of CNG buses would produce considerably less CO2 than a fleet of diesel buses. But does that make CNG a green alternative? Where does CNG come from, and how is it processed?
CNG is extracted through a process called hydraulic fracturing, or more commonly “fracking”. This is the process of drilling and injecting fluid into the ground at a high pressure in order to fracture shale rocks and release the natural gas inside. Fracking is a controversial method of obtaining fossil fuels, and it has actually been banned is several cities, towns, and counties across the US and Europe due to health and environmental concerns. Some residents who live near fracking sites are particularly concerned with ground water contamination and human health impacts. In fact, the funding for the grant obtained by RTMSD comes from what are known as “impact fees”- fees companies drilling for gas in Pennsylvania are required pay to offset the environmental and health risks of fracking.
This last fact left my brain going around in circles: the natural gas companies pay a penalty fee to offset the acknowledged environmental costs of natural gas extraction. That “impact fee” is then allocated to schools and businesses in the form of grants overseen by the PA Department of Environmental Protection. The grants are then used to convert businesses from oil to natural gas, or in our case, a fleet of diesel buses to CNG. Now, to operate its fleet of buses, the school district will be purchasing natural gas. From the companies. That gave the money. To convert the buses. Hmm…
As a teacher, I certainly understand the need for school district to choose cost saving fuel sources, and applaud Rose Tree Media School District’s commitment to natural resource and energy conservation. At the same time, I question the framing of this grant as a “green” initiative. While CNG is more cost effective than petroleum oil and will result in decreased carbon emissions in the short term, the long term human and environmental impacts of fracking are great. For example, the process of hydraulic fracking leaks methane gas into the atmosphere, and methane gas is actually more detrimental to global warming and climate change than carbon dioxide. Meanwhile there is mounting evidence of rivers, streams, and wells right here in Pennsylvania being polluted by “produced” water, a by-product of fracking that can contain as many as 600 petrochemicals harmful to ecosystems, animals, and human beings.
Is converting the fleet of school buses to CNG really the way to “green” our public school transportation? In an ideal world, truly “green” transportation would not rely on fossil fuels at all. Is this initiative green? Perhaps it should be reexamined as one that is rather grey.