Uprising, by Phil McKenna. Published by Matter, $.99. Visit Matter for details about formats, purchasing, and membership.
Review by Virginia Hughes
In his State of the Union address last month, President Obama made several nods to climate change. To reduce America’s dependence on oil — and the carbon emissions that come from burning it — he pushed for a bigger investment in clean sources of energy, like wind, solar and natural gas. “The natural gas boom has led to cleaner power and greater energy independence,” Obama said. “We need to encourage that.”
Thanks to advances in a technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, natural gas production in the U.S. grew by 8 percent in 2011, the sixth consecutive year of growth, leading the International Energy Agency to call this “a golden age of gas.” When burned, natural gas emits half as much carbon dioxide as coal does. The Obama administration and some prominent scientists — including Obama’s pick for new energy secretary — say natural gas could be used as a “bridge fuel,” curbing our coal consumption until greener alternatives are ready for primetime.
But what if natural gas isn’t so clean?
That’s the question artfully raised in Uprising, the fourth installment from Matter, an online platform for long-form science journalism. Uprising, like Matter’s earlier stories, presents an engaging narrative with juicy characters doing surprising science at a length of around 6,000 words. Unlike the other Matter stories, though, I’m not sure this one needed more than the 3,000 words of a typical magazine feature.
In Uprising, journalist Phil McKenna tells the story of two unlikely collaborators — Bob Ackley, a big-car-loving libertarian with decades of experience as a gas company technician, and Nathan Phillips, a liberal tree-hugging professor — and their wacky adventures cruising the streets of Boston to map natural gas leaks.
When methane, the primary ingredient of natural gas, leaks into the atmosphere (rather than being burned) it’s a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. But nobody knows exactly how much gas is leaking. That’s where Ackley and Phillips come in.
Uprising tells why Ackley and Phillips started to work together, and what they’ve discovered so far: In a paper published last month in Environmental Pollution, they reported finding 3,356 leaks in Boston, including six where gas levels were high enough to cause an explosion. Their study included a city map tracking the leaks, which Matter recreated as a striking black-and-white grid with swashes of red and yellow to indicate the leaks. (And although the study is behind a pay wall, Matter made it somewhat open-access by linking to a Google Doc of the study’s full data set.)
The problem, for me, is that it’s unclear how (or whether) this single study contributes to the greater international debate about natural gas and climate that McKenna did such a great job setting up. The study focused on the number of leaks, rather than their volume, so it can’t say anything definitive about whether natural gas really is worse for the climate than coal.
It’s not that these investigations don’t matter: We learn that Ackley and others are finding similarly frightening numbers of leaks in other cities, such as Manhattan and Washington, D.C., and that some of this data is driving a major lawsuit against a utility company. It’s entirely plausible that these leaks will put a crimp on the natural gas boom. But the story doesn’t say much about how the wider energy community has reacted to this data. It didn’t include any skeptical voices, or any comments from scientists or policy makers who still believe in natural gas as a bridge fuel.
I was expecting the story to answer the initial question posed: What if natural gas isn’t so clean? And when I didn’t get that answer, I was disappointed, in a way that I might not have been had the story been shorter. The view, for me, wasn’t quite worth the climb.
Virginia Hughes is a science writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Nature, Popular Science, and Slate, and her blog Only Human is part of National Geographic magazine’s Phenomena. Follow her on Twitter.