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Guest Commentary: Colorado's other natural gas industry


An article by: Joanna D. Underwood

As prices fall, layoffs rise and controversies persist, the natural gas industry in Colorado is getting more contentious and smaller. But there is a way to renew its prospects that people on all sides of the issue should be able to agree on.

In-state gas production has fallen from its 2012 peak as key reserves like the Piceance Basin decline, with major companies pulling out or downsizing operations. Production is forecast to shrink by half a billion cubic feet daily for the next 12 to 18 months. That could mean thousands of lost jobs and slower economic growth.

There's no consensus in sight on expanding Colorado's gas production through fracking. The recommendations of Gov. John Hickenlooper's fracking task force are widely seen as insufficient to address communities' environmental and health concerns. That sets the stage for more confrontation between the gas industry vs. municipalities and environmentalists opposing fracking.

But what if the state could expand its gas production without polarizing its people, in a way that the industry and concerned citizens alike could support? It can, if we tap Colorado's organic waste stream to make renewable natural gas (RNG) fuel.

Colorado generates 8.5 million tons of municipal solid waste each year, including 2.45 million tons of organic food and yard waste, the vast majority of which gets landfilled. The state's 35 landfills, 11 large wastewater treatment facilities, and 130 dairy farms all emit large amounts of methane-laden biogases (to learn more about biogas, click here) which could be recovered and processed into RNG.

Though RNG is chemically similar to fossil natural gas and can generate electricity, heat homes or power vehicles, it's not a fossil fuel. It's made from organic wastes rather than drilled or fracked, so it avoids the environmental and health problems of fossil gas extraction.

It's also the lowest-carbon transportation fuel available. RNG made from captured landfill gas emits about 90 percent less greenhouse gas over its life cycle than diesel or gasoline, and 65 percent less than fossil natural gas (CNG). RNG made from food waste processed in anaerobic digester tanks can be carbon net-neutral or even net-negative. Over its lifecycle, producing and burning it can actually prevent more hydrocarbons from entering the atmosphere than it emits.

How can that be? All decomposing organic wastes outgas. The biogases they produce are at least 50 percent methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Capturing it for fuel prevents it from escaping into the atmosphere, shrinking RNG's carbon footprint. Besides RNG fuel, organic wastes processed in anaerobic digesters also produce organic compost from the remaining biosolids, which can displace synthetic fertilizers and offset their greenhouse gas emissions. Add these factors together, and a gallon of RNG can take about 30 pounds of greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere, while avoiding other pollution and health effects from extracting and burning fossil fuels.

If this sounds theoretical, it's not. RNG projects are getting underway in Colorado now. One of the country's largest anaerobic digestion facilities, Heartland Biogas, near LaSalle, produces RNG from dairy cow manure and other organics — enough to run a 20-megawatt power plant.

Anaerobic digestion of wastewater at the Persigo treatment plant in Grand Junction produces RNG fuel that powers City and County vehicles, displacing 168,000 gallons of gasoline and diesel and eliminating 3 million pounds of CO2 equivalent emissions annually. Fuel cost savings plus environmental credits under the EPA's Renewable Fuel Standard will pay for the $2.8 million project in nine years.

Economics and positive impacts like that are pretty irresistible. However market disruptions and the fracking debate shake out, RNG offers a hugely beneficial, no-brainer approach to expanding in-state gas production while reducing the state's waste burden, cutting GHG emissions, complying with EPA climate regulations and avoiding other fossil gas-related problems. Amid contentious energy issues, it's a bright spot of potential consensus, and could be a big part of Colorado's clean energy future.

Joanna D. Underwood is president of Energy Vision (www.energy-vision.org).

Article cited from: http://goo.gl/mU9dZD