Jim Warren, the executive director of the Durham-based consumer advocacy group NC Warn, seems these days like a frantic lead character from a 1950s science fiction movie.
He has seen an invisible gas being released by powerful corporations that is endangering the planet — but no one will listen to him. He's not surprised that the corporations – especially Duke Energy – don't want to believe him. But he's mystified that news outlets that usually would pounce on such news are oddly indifferent.
Warren is desperately trying to break through with the message that natural gas is not — as utilities claim and the media often repeat — a cleaner fossil fuel than coal whose increased use will slow the buildup of greenhouse gases.
Burning natural gas does indeed produce less carbon than burning coal, but the process of collecting natural gas using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is releasing high levels of methane — a gas than can be 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide in causing atmospheric warming.
"We are up against the wall as far as halting peak emissions soon," Warren said. "If they don’t start heading down, we will have baked in so much that it will move ahead at it own momentum, at a pace no one can predict. It’s happening a lot more quickly than anyone believed. Within a decade, we could have abrupt, cascading changes happening."
Dramatic changes are already here in freakish weather involving droughts and deluges, ice melting at the poles and blasts of Arctic air penetrating deeper into Europe and United States. Ocean currents and animal migration patterns are changing.
To heighten awareness of the methane threat, the Environmental Defense Fund said in April that it will spend millions of dollars to launch a satellite by 2021 that will spot methane leaking from oil and gas facilities worldwide. It hopes the detection will create pressure to cap the leaks.
“Cutting methane emissions from the global oil and gas industry is the single fastest thing we can do to help put the brakes on climate change right now,” said Fred Krupp, EDF president.
But that message is being drowned out by utilities promoting clean-burning natural gas. Since the fuel's very name — natural gas —tends to obscure its hazard, Warren has taken to calling it "fracked gas." Still, he's having trouble getting through. NC Warn has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads to send the message directly, but Warren said ads aren't as effective as news reports.
In his frustration with the media, Warren sent a remarkable letter to WUNC recently complaining about the public radio station's coverage of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline. The 600-mile pipeline will carry natural gas from fracking fields in West Virginia into Virginia and though central North Carolina.
The story noted controversies surrounding the massive infrastructure project, but also repeated industry claims that using more natural gas will help reduce global warming. That prompted Warren to write to Connie Walker, the president and general manager of WUNC Radio, to complain that the station was not telling the whole sorry about fracking.
Warren complimented the station for its previous attention to environmental concerns. But he also questioned whether substantial underwriting of National Public Radio by the gas industry, and specifically Duke Energy's support of WUNC, has cribbed public radio's reporting on fracking's tie to methane leaks.
Warren wrote: "I know how top-down pressure can hamper and frustrate good journalists within and outside public radio. That problem has worsened on many fronts as corporate influence over our society continues to grow."
Walker, writing in response to listeners who shared Warren's objections to the ACP story, said, "WUNC is proud of its commitment to covering these important environmental issues, and we will continue to do so with input from all stakeholders, but independent of undue influence from any outside corporation or group."
News reports that cast utilities' increasing use of natural gas as good news overlook the rising availability of renewable energy, which is the real good news. With more investment from utilities, wind and solar power could move the hands backward on the Earth's doomsday clock.
Warren calls the increase in methane releases and the improvements in renewable energy technology "an incredible clash of horrible and hopeful news."
Now he needs more news outlets to report it.
Barnett: 919-829-4512, email@example.com.